Employees at Bell & Brio complain of late wages, no superannuation against boss, Mark Richerdson

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Unpaid superannuation, late wages, no tips for months and payment complaints from suppliers and contractors – current and former staff members say the writing was on the wall for popular Sydney eatery Bel & Brio.

Now some of the restaurant’s 140 staff claim they have been left in the lurch by senior management, and by the establishment’s chief operating officer and director Mark Richerdson.

Making the issue harder for staff is most are international workers who require sponsorship from the business to remain in Australia.

Since 2016, the Italian-inspired establishment has occupied a considerable presence in Sydney’s exclusive Barangaroo district.

This included a sprawling location on the waterfront corso, plus a nearby Italian-inspired food market, bar and dining venue and cafe.

While the menu boasted gourmet, seasonal produce, and described offering a “gilded age of elegance”, behind the scenes, the business was on the decline.

It was business as usual for senior employee Nicholas* as he closed the restaurant after a regular Friday night last month. Just hours later, he learnt it would be his final shift. By Saturday morning, October 29, all of Bel & Brio’s premises were shuttered.

Overnight, the property’s landlord Lendlease locked down the properties due to $1.8 million in unpaid rent.

News.com.au also understands extensive support had been given to Bel & Brio by Lendlease throughout the pandemic.

The only explanation provided was a sign which read: “To whom it may concern: Please note that the Landlord is in control of the Premises.”

When news.com.au put the claims of financial mismanagement to Mr Richerdson, he attributed many of the complaints to Covid, despite claims from employees that these issues were long running and present prior to the pandemic.

Staff left in the lurch

Nicholas claimed all communication between staff and management stopped on the Saturday when the business was closed.

Initially employees were told to take the weekend off, with hopes that trading would resume on Monday.

“We didn’t get any texts or emails saying that the restaurant had closed. We found out from someone who was working,” said Nicholas.

“Instead management sent communication that the restaurant was closed for the weekend and ‘let’s see what going to be the roster next week, have a great weekend and take two days off’.”

The lack of response from senior management has left Nicholas “angry and upset” but he’s more concerned about his alleged unpaid wages.

Despite being on a fortnightly payment schedule, he claims his pay was frequently transferred late and with no warning.

Numerous staff also claim tips – which were collected and divided between workers – have been withheld for at least the past four months.

Mr Richerdson, however, claims that all of the tips from the venues have been paid. Instead he says that only service charges, which have been used as an entitlement when the business was performing well, have ceased.

“This was always privilege, not a payment staff are entitled to,” he said.

The staff are also expecting back payments from Covid.

Despite signing documents that they would be back paid after working on a reduced salary of $350 a week for over six weeks, employees are still waiting for their compensation.

Speaking to news.com.au, Mr Richerdson claims staff who agreed to work at a reduced weekly wage of $350 “have been reimbursed”.

“Anyone who is still owed will be paid out with all their entitlements once the transition takes place,” he added.

Nicholas, on the other hand, says queries on the matter have been ignored.

Many of these complaints have been bolstered by Nicholas’s fellow employees, with all directing their outrage at Mr Richerdson.

After receiving his last pay cheque two weeks late, Nicholas says he and his colleagues have made calls, emails and texts to senior management for their last fortnight of pay, but their attempts have remained unanswered.

“We’re not receiving answers from anyone. I was supposed to have a meeting yesterday (Monday, November 7) and then the same thing this morning but he didn’t show up,” he said.

In a statement to news.com.au, Mr Richerdson said he was “blinsided” by Lendlease’s lockdown. He added that because it occurred during a pay week, “no one has been paid yet but everyone will get everything they are owed”.

He also promised to call his entire staff and said he would remain “loyal to my team”.

“I am doing everything in my power to solve this problem so I can give them clear information,” he said.

“I did meet with eight of my managers and informed them of the next steps. They were instructed to let their teams know we would reconvene in 10 days, this was last week.”

‘Living in uncertainty’

Financial concerns aside, for many of Bel & Brio’s largely Italian employees who are in the process of securing a permanent residency in Australia, their situation is inflamed by fears of deportation.

In order to remain in Australia, people on a working visa need to remain sponsored by an employer. However for Bel & Brio employees, their prospects of remaining in Australia have been up-ended by the business’ uncertain future.

“It’s very frustrating to work for a company or business and then have to find another way to stay, or find another place to work because an employer did a poor job managing his business,” he says.

Nicholas partly blames Australia’s immigration process for “structurally” allowing a system of abuse and exploitation to occur.

“Being on a visa, most people were afraid to say: ‘We want our money, we want to get paid’,” he adds.

“The problem is that since the situation had been going on for so long, we had basically accepted it.”

Another former employee told news.com.au that the pressure to stay was more immense before Covid.

“There was not a lot of possibility to work like there is right now. Right now you’ll go place-to-place and anyone will hire you,” they said.

“Before that was different.”

Unpaid superannuation

Beyond the recent pay cheques is the issue of unpaid superannuation.

News.com.au has heard several claims of employees not being paid the government-mandated rate which currently stands at 10.5 per cent. This affected workers who were Australian citizens, and those on working visas.

For Nicholas, despite working for Bel & Brio for five years, his super balance remains at $1766.86. He estimates it realistically should sit closer to $35,000.

It’s a struggle former employee Christopher* also knows all too well.

After working for Bel & Brio as a senior employee for more than four years, the Italian native left the business in the past 12 months.

Speaking to news.com.au, he said he became aware that he wasn’t receiving the compulsory payments during the 2020 Covid pandemic, when workers were given the option to access their superannuation early in cases of financial adversity.

“It said he was paying it on the pay slip but no one noticed until Covid came. Then the rule came out that you could take up to $10,000 of superannuation so everyone tried and everyone found out there was nothing in there,” says Christopher.

Promises from Mr Richerdson to back pay his staff have also allegedly gone unmet.

“Even though we knew our superannuation wasn’t being paid, we kept staying there because we believed we’d get what we want,” he says.

“He always tried to buy us with some good words and some promises.

“It got too much for me and I was lucky because I could move my visa to another employer.”

Mr Richerson said issues around missing superannuation payments were a “result of the Covid-19 lockdowns” – something his employees refute.

Despite this, he admitted he is “personally and permanently liable” for the amount owed and claimed plans are underway to rectify any missing figures.

“I have been personally hit with a Superannuation Guarantee by the ATO, currently we are implementing a monthly payment plan to ensure everyone gets everything they are owed,” he said.

‘I already knew there was a problem’

During his lengthy tenure with the company, Christopher believes the company had struggled financially.

“Even before news came out about the rent, I knew already there was a problem. We always had issues with suppliers, and unpaid tips,” Christopher says.

Texts seen by news.com.au also show suppliers and employees chasing senior staff, including Mr Richerdson for payment.

One former worker also said they encouraged suppliers and contractors to request payment upfront to ensure they were paid for their services. News.com.au understands that beyond rent, the business also has several other outstanding debts.

Again, Mr Richerdson says issues with suppliers and contractors have only become apparent “during and after Covid”. Like the issues around superannuation, claims from Bel & Brio employees have contradicted this.

“Every business, especially those within the hospitality industry, have had issues,” he said.

“I have always fostered strong relationships with suppliers, I am so grateful for their flexibility, as if we didn’t have stock we couldn’t trade.”

Boss’ promise to workers

In light of the recent upheaval, Mr Richerdson says he and the Bel & Brio management are “working on to ensure everyone will get everything they are owed”.

“Visa holders will continue to be employed under sponsorship, the venue has only been closed for 10 days” he says.

“I am doing everything I can to ensure everyone is happy and we are very close to a positive outcome.”

While the restaurant boss claims he, along with the Bel & Brio staff have created a “fair and happy environment” in the seven-plus years of the establishment’s operation, many of his staff believe their future is in limbo.

“People have made plans to stay and many of them have lived in Australia for years and years and now what’s going to happen? They’re living in uncertainty and they might have to start from zero,” says Nicholas.

“That’s the worst thing.”

*Names have been changed

Know more? Get in touch at Jessica.wang@news.com.au

Originally published as Employees at Bell & Brio complain of late wages, no superannuation against boss, Mark Richerdson