Whose job is it to spot the illegal immigrants?
Immigration officers' raid on Conran restaurant Quaglino's, in London, last month highlighted both the industry's reliance on migrant workers and the pitfalls of such a dependence.
The alliance is nothing new, of course, but amid the pressures of an expanding European Union, tighter Government limits and increasingly clamorous media coverage, the industry finds itself at the sharp end of the debate.
Certainly, Conran might be excused for feeling aggrieved at being the subject of such a high-profile raid. The chain made it clear that it had had "all the requisite controls and procedures" in place.
More galling, perhaps, was the fact that reporters from London's Evening Standard newspaper were tipped off in advance and helped fuel the damaging publicity.
While it is still unclear how the five people arrested slipped through Conran's net, the hospitality sector has traditionally been a soft target for immigration officials.
Sofia Dimen, operations manager for restaurant chain Mediterranean Kitchen, explains: "Because companies in this industry have so many staff that come and go, there is an attitude that if someone is not right, then they are replaced.
"It's an easy target because it is one of the few sectors you can come into without any formal training."
Although Mediterranean Kitchen requires workers to produce passports, visas and permits, Dimen says it is inevitable some people will slip under the radar.
But Steve Johnson, restaurants divisional director at the London office of recruitment company Lister Charles, believes the industry largely
has itself to blame.
"Historically the hospitality sector has been lazy and slack about the rules," he says. "It has made a rod for its own back."
But there has been significant tightening up in recent years, particularly among recruiters, agencies and employers, he adds.
"A trusted agent knows their reputation is on the line, so they will try their hardest to provide a history for each candidate."
James Horler, chief executive of restaurant chain La Tasca, and Claire Morgan, human resources manager for Wagamama's, both agree that the key is to have a robust, simple system and stick to it.
"The rules are pretty clear," Horler says. "We require everyone's passports and their other documentation before they even go on the payroll."
Morgan adds: "We train our managers on what to look for and if they are in any doubt, they can call our HR department who can advise them. We also carry out audits on our restaurants to ensure compliance."
The Government is putting together plans for a new points-based system to control immigration, particularly for workers and students from outside the EU.
But some fear this may exacerbate weaknesses in the system. The British Hospitality Association (BHA) has criticised the proposals for limiting the number of unskilled workers in favour of skilled workers.
Chinese and Indian restaurants are concerned that curbing immigrant numbers will intensify skills shortages at home, caused by second- or third-generation Asian workers choosing not to follow in their parents' footsteps in the restaurant trade.
But Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the BHA, hopes to hammer out a formula with the Government that will address the industry's concerns and needs.
"We want the Home Office to say how it is going to be operated," he says. "We are trying to reach the answers and work out where to draw the line."
But the uncertainty looks set to continue after the Home Office last week said there was no timeframe for publishing its detailed plans.
Where this leaves the hard-pressed hospitality operator is far from clear. What is obvious, though, is that if you don't want to suffer embarrassing publicity like Quaglino's, it is vital to stay vigilant, wary and, hardest of all, on top of the paperwork.
But as Couchman puts it: "There is the issue that people are trying to run a business. They are not supposed to be unpaid paper checkers for the Government."
Useful linkswww.homeoffice.gov.uk (helpline 0845 0106677)
What employers should do
- Check and keep a record of documents confirming an individual's entitlements to work in the UK before employing them. Guidance is available from the Home Office at www.homeoffice.gov.uk
- You must take "reasonable steps" to ensure your potential employee is the rightful holder of the presented documents and that they are genuine
- Keep within codes of practice on racial equality. A revised code was introduced last November. See the Commission for Racial Equality at www.cre.gov.uk
What the law says
Anyone employing an individual in the UK is required to ensure he or she is legally entitled to work here.
It is a criminal offence to employ anyone aged 16 or over who does not have permission to work in the UK.
The maximum penalty is £5,000 per illegal employee after conviction in a magistrates' court. But there is no upper limit on the fine following a conviction in the Crown Court.