Prime Minister David Cameron has pushed ahead with plans to cut non-EU migrant worker numbers by almost 25%, threatening to fuel a skills crisis within the £3b ethnic restaurant sector.
In an announcement on Tuesday this week, the Government revealed that it would cap the number of skilled workers from outside the European Economic Area allowed into the UK at 21,700 - 6,300 down on 2009's total. Transfers of employees by their companies between one country and another are excluded from the cap - they will be allowed to stay for five years as long as their salaries exceed £40,000.
Home secretary Theresa May said: "We have worked closely with businesses while designing this system, and listened to their feedback, but we have also made clear that as the recovery continues, we need employers to look first to people who are out of work and who are already in this country."
Immigration was a major issue at May's General Election, with then Labour leader Gordon Brown threatening to remove chefs from the shortage occupation list outright, and Cameron determined to cut net immigration from 2009's 196,000 to tens of thousands by 2015.
Access to the UK for those outside the EU is governed by an Australian-style points-based system. Last year the Home Office issued around 50,000 Tier 2 "skilled worker" visas. Workers whose occupations are on the shortage occupation list automatically gain most of the points they require to gain a Tier 2 visa. The list - dominated by chefs and care workers - contributes around 8,600 visas a year to this total, which includes intra-company transfers.
It was not clear as Caterer went to press whether the number of chefs on the list would be reduced, although the Migration Advisory Committee's recent Limits on Migration report asked directly whether a shortage of engineers or chefs was more important.
Bob Cotton, chairman of the Hospitality Skills Academy, said that despite the prime minster's speech in support of tourism in August, his words were now in danger of being overturned by his deeds.
Cotton said the existence of the UK's estimated 11,000 to 13,000 ethnic restaurants - which with the likes of Tamarind, Hakkasan, Nahm and Benares have multiple Michelin stars between them - and their future expansion was endangered by a Government policy that appeared to accept the argument that non-EU bankers, doctors, financiers and scientists can work in the UK, highly skilled and experienced ethnic chefs cannot.
"Why the reluctance to grant visas to highly skilled chefs who can take charge of a kitchen and prepare fine cuisine in the traditional way - a way that takes years of training? The chefs required are those at the top of their profession, with skills unavailable in this country," he said.
Sector Skills Council People 1st published its Ethnic Chefs Strategy in April in a bid to provide the training required for domestic chefs via qualifications such as the Professional Cookery Diplomas.
Director of policy, Martin-Christian Kent, said of the announcement: "This will clearly make it more difficult for employers to recruit chefs from outside the EU and they need to start skilling chefs now. This comes into effect from April 2011. People 1st will carefully monitor and comment on future announcements and developments over the next few months."
HELL'S KITCHEN US WINNER DENIED UK VISA
The Hell's Kitchen US winner who was set to join the chefs brigade at Gordon Ramsay's Savoy Grill has been denied a UK working visa. Californian single mother Holli Ugalde was due to complete a six-month placement at the former Michelin-starred restaurant, which reopens next week at the iconic London hotel after being delayed by more than a month. She had been offered the position as the prize for winning the US version of the reality TV show Hell's Kitchen in the summer and was set to work under chef-patron Stuart Gillies and head chef Andy Cook.
By Chris Druce
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