British immigration rules squeeze Indian-restaurant workforce
A clampdown on low-skilled immigrant labor is causing a shortage of Bangladeshi kitchen help.
It's become a staple of the British culinary landscape, an exotic blast from the subcontinent that has long supplanted the fish-and-chip shop as the nation's favorite eatery.Skip to next paragraph
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But 40 years after it brought papadums and vindaloo to the conservative British palate, the curry house is feeling the pinch. No, it's not the food, which remains consistently yellow and still lures 2.5 million customers into around 12,000 restaurants every week. Neither is it a sudden health warning about the perils of mango chutney.
No. The problem facing Indian restaurants (called that even though the vast majority are Bangladeshi-run) is a labor issue. To coin a phrase, these days you just can't get the staff.
New immigration rules gradually being rolled out here give curry houses highly restricted scope to employ chefs, porters, and waiters from Bangladesh. Now, there are some 27,500 unfilled vacancies in restaurants up and down the country.
"We are suffering, our business is going down," says Baljoor Rashid, who owns a chain of 15 restaurants in southeast England. "There is a shortage of waiters, a shortage of chefs, and a shortage of unskilled kitchen porters."
As a result, he says, an industry that turns over £3.5 billion ($6.9 billion) a year and employs 90,000 people, most from the subcontinent, is at risk.
"There are a lot of restaurants closing already," says Mr. Rashid, who is president of the Bangladesh Caterers Association. "Because of the shortage of staff, restaurants are dying."
The government changed tack on immigration after hundreds of thousands of east Europeans flocked to Britain in the wake of European Union expansion in 2004, a mass migration that one expert described as "the largest-ever single wave of immigration the British Isles have ever experienced."
To compensate, a new points-based system for immigration aspires to regulate migrant numbers. But the crucial category for Bangladeshi restaurants – low-skilled workers – is unlikely to be opened for several months because the government feels it has enough of such migrants from Eastern Europe. "It's a category which will be there to fill specific temporary labor shortages, but at the moment it's not required," says one Home Office official, on customary condition of anonymity.
Rashid says this has resulted in the culturally absurd situation where the government is urging Bangladeshi kitchens to employ Polish staff.
"We went to see the immigration minister Liam Byrne," he says. "He told us we have to use East Europeans. We said we have tried them but it's impossible. Firstly, how can they work in a Bangladeshi kitchen when there is the language barrier?