Hospitality labour shortages are back in the news, following the Bangladesh Caterers Association's (BCA) criticism of the Government's stance on immigration, which it claims has contributed to a shortfall of 20,000 workers in the sector.
With an increasing reluctance among younger members of the UK's Bangladeshi community to enter the industry, and an increasing demand for regional dishes creating a demand for more specialist chefs, the BCA has repeated its calls to the Government to reassess its stance.
What is getting the goat of bodies such as the BCA is the Government's apparently changeable and contrary approach to immigration.
Last year the Government made it easier for UK hospitality businesses to arrange work permits for low-skilled non-EU residents, allowing 10,000 new work permits under the Sector Based Scheme (see below). However, in May this year the Government announced plans to tighten the scheme and this toughened stance has seen visa applications stalled.
And there could be more problems on the horizon for the hospitality industry. In the wake of a sharp uptake in applications, the Government has also announced plans to tighten up the Working Holiday visa scheme used by young travellers from Commonwealth countries, which could cut the valuable supply of casual staff from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, many of whom find part-time work in bars.
Many employers, faced with the problem of staff and skills shortages, find their difficulties in attracting staff locally are often exacerbated by the comparatively low wages on offer. In response, they turn to foreign workers, legitimate or otherwise, to fill the gaps. It is no secret that illegal immigrants have been helping to plug the labour shortfall in the sector for years.
And it's not just the small businesses that get caught out by the authorities. In the past two years in the capital, the list of high-profile businesses that have yielded illegal workers during raids by police and immigration staff include Sir Terence Conran's Bluebird restaurant, the London Hilton Metropole and Claridge's.
In such cases, the official explanation from the business in question is often that it had no idea it was employing illegals, having sourced the staff through an agency. But last year the Government announced moves to clamp down on this area, passing the duty of care for checking a worker's status and verifying their documents - and hence the liability - on to the employer, effectively quashing this defence.
On a practical note, it is of course very hard for an employer to tell whether papers have been falsified or not. But from a legal point of view, the important thing is to show that you have made the effort, and to keep a record.
But it's not all doom and gloom. The recent expansion of the EU to include countries such as Latvia, the Czech Republic and Poland has widened the labour pool for UK hospitality employers. "It has eased the situation in certain sectors," said Joanna Cuss, client support manager at recruitment firm Berkeley Scott, which is currently sourcing skilled chefs from the Czech Republic for its UK clients. "I just think it will take a bit more time."
Unfortunately, the EU expansion hasn't helped the BCA's members, and others like them, who want to recruit staff with local knowledge who also speak the language of the kitchen.
The importance of immigration should not be underestimated. Home Office figures show that a 1% increase in population though immigration can result in a 1.5% increase in GDP. For its part, the Confederation of British Industry has long advocated a policy of "managed migration" to address the labour shortfall in areas such as hospitality and to boost the economy by using workers from the EU accession states and further afield.
Not all agree that the Government is the culprit in this. One recruitment expert, who declined to be named, argued that UK hospitality businesses could do more to help ease the problem by training more staff themselves and investing more in their training programmes.
"I don't always think it's the Government's fault," the expert said. "The companies themselves could be more proactive."
But while it may be unfair to lay all the blame at the door of the Government, as organisations such as the BCA would say, a bit more clarity and consistency in its approach would not go amiss.
Immigration:the law Under the Government's pilot Sector Based Scheme (SBS) - introduced in May 2003 and due to expire in January 2005 - employers are able to bring in workers from countries outside the European Economic Area on a temporary basis. The SBS applies to a number of industry positions, including chefs at NVQ level 2 and below, housekeepers, and waiting staff.
The job must be full-time (more than 30 hours a week) and applicants must be aged between 18 and 30. The permits last for a maximum of 12 months, and the costs are to be met by the employer, which must provide evidence to Work Permits UK showing that it cannot fill the jobs using domestic labour.
The Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 makes it a criminal offence to employ an applicant who is subject to immigration control, with a maximum penalty for each charge of £5,000.