British immigration rules squeeze Indian-restaurant workforce
A clampdown on low-skilled immigrant labor is causing a shortage of Bangladeshi kitchen help.
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"No. 2: People have to understand the culture to provide the authentic curry."Skip to next paragraph
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Nowhere perhaps is this shortfall more keenly felt than around Brick Lane, the heart of the Bangladesh community in London's East End. Here, Muquim Ahmed, owner of one of London's best Bengali restaurants, Café Naz, is desperately casting round for kitchen porters prepared to do the unglamorous behind-the-scenes work at one of his five outlets.
"I've tried people from Poland," he sighs. "They work for a week and they don't turn up the next week. I think they don't like the smell. Indian food tastes good, but in the kitchen it smells awful."
He says British customers must expect restaurants to close. "The problem in the kitchen won't be reflected in the front of house," he says, but if the crisis continues "slowly I'll give up my five remaining restaurants. I'll shrink and shrink and in five years I'll be gone."
Enam Ali, owner of the award-winning Le Raj restaurant near Epsom Downs in southern England, says he is struggling to retain high standards with only 10 staff where he used to have 16. Staffing has become so critical that he is increasingly pitching in himself. "People drive 50 or 60 miles to come to my restaurant, and if I don't give the right service, I'm going to lose business," he says.
As for employing Europeans, Mr. Ali shrugs at the idea. "We don't mind, but customers say they don't want to see any other nationality. They want to see Indian people running Indian restaurants."
The Immigration Advisory Service, a charity that advises on immigration law, has taken up the case, telling Mr. Byrne that he must think again. IAS chief executive Keith Best says the effective moratorium on low-skilled workers from non-EU countries could do "irreparable damage" to curry houses.
"For many low-income families the only chance they have of eating out is to go for a curry," he says. "The minister thinks that the vacancies in the curry industry can be filled by Eastern Europeans who have no cultural sensitivity towards or understanding of the curry industry.
"It is a sad comment on government policy that it favors Eastern Europeans over citizens of Commonwealth countries such as Bangladesh whose preceding generations have contributed so much to the British economy and continue to do so."
Byrne has responded by saying that the Migration Advisory Committee, a panel set up in 2006, would look into the matter. It remains unclear how many committee members enjoy a good curry.