Stricter application of immigration rules, added to further restrictions coming into force this week, are having a devastating effect on staffing levels in UK ethnic restaurants. Michael Millar reports
Ethnic food means big business. It is estimated that the UK has 60% of the total European ethnic food expenditure. France comes a poor second with just 13%. Curry restaurants alone in the UK boast £3.5b turnover a year.
But ethnic food is in trouble. Tightening of immigration rules coupled with further restrictions to come are making it nigh-on impossible to get the necessary staff, according to industry figures.
Earlier this month a Bangladeshi delegation became the latest group to petition Immigration Minister Liam Byrne to change the forthcoming tiered migration system, following hot on the heels of Chinese and Japanese entreaties.
The new five-tier system means those considered unskilled (tier 3) - under which those in roles such as kitchen staff and waiters will fall - simply won't be let in. The Government begins the rollout of this new system tomorrow (29 February).
The Bangladeshi Caterers Association (BCA) asked the minister to grant them special dispensation to bring in new staff by putting them on a "shortage occupation list" to solve a shortfall already numbering 27,500.
But there's little chance that they, or the Chinese or Japanese delegations, will be granted their request. For one thing, the Home Office seems to have little sympathy. "We have no plans to make any changes," was the blunt reply from a spokeswoman when asked if the Government would relax the rules.
Also, the Government cannot do this under EU rules, because it has decided to restrict entry of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals, at least until the end of this year.
Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, said EU law dictates that if the UK restricts movement of EU members, it cannot discriminate further against them by letting other nationalities in to work.
"Romanians and Bulgarians need to be given first bite of the cherry," he said. "I sympathise [that restaurants] are short of people, but I don't think there's any way round this legally."
There is also little sympathy in some quarters for ethnic caterers who claim they have to employ those who are "culturally sensitive" to the food - in other words, those of their own nationality.
Conservative MP Mark Pritchard said those suffering from a shortage of staff of a particular ethnic background should be looking within their own communities in the UK.
"Around 14,000 of the 94,000 Bangladeshis in the UK who could be economically active are not," he said. "These people have declared themselves fit to work, and there must be more investigation into whether some of them are willing and able to fill those vacancies."
Bajloor Rashid, president of the BCA, said this was "a silly comment" and had already been tried without success. He also denied that the industry was hostile to outsiders, such as eastern European workers, who are prevalent across the hospitality industry. "We have tried to train them, but they don't fit in with the culture, and there is a language barrier. They leave every five minutes."
Pritchard countered that there need to be better incentives for staff to join. "If the Bangladeshi community isn't interested and eastern Europeans aren't interested, this says there is a problem," he said. "They need to ask if the terms and conditions are good enough."
The new immigration system has ramifications for the hospitality industry that reach far beyond the high street.
This is because tier 2 migrants - "skilled workers with a job offer to fill gaps in the United Kingdom labour force" - have to fulfil criteria relating to salary and language skills on top of their culinary skills.
"For example, the points system as currently envisaged would require a chef de partie to be paid at least £22,000 - well above the current levels," Couchman said. "Tier 2 workers will require a high standard of English at entry, which many, maybe most, ethnic chefs simply do not have. We, therefore, face the possibility of the supply of ethnic chefs drying up under the points-based system."
Harden sympathises with the sector's plight. "If you are trying to capture foreign flavours, then you need people who understand those flavours," he said. "It's a very 1970s idea that you put in a bit of curry powder and it's Indian. It just doesn't happen that way."
Ironically, it seems the public fear of excessive immigration will only help ensure it loses one of its favourite pastimes - eating ethnic food.