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Nail in the coffin of the curry restaurant

30 March 2006

The Government's new points-based immigration scheme could sound the death knell for many of the UK's curry restaurants, warns Enam Ali.

Ali is the owner ofLe Raj restaurantin Epsom, Surrey; editor of Spice Business (the quarterly magazine for the Asian business community); and chairman of theGuild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs.

The government has hammered its first nail into the coffin of the UK's curry restaurant sector.

Its decision to close the door on low-skilled migrants from outside Western Europe leaves our industry up an employment creek without a paddle. Unable to go to the sub-continent to recruit the experienced and knowledgeable labour we so desperately need, many of our restaurants will not survive.

The new five-tier, points-based immigration system is designed, we're told, to benefit the economy and protect our borders by preventing the ‘wrong' sort of people coming to this country.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke says it will ensure that "only those people with the skills the UK needs come to this country, while preventing those without those skills applying."

Sadly, that will include thousands of the skilled chefs our industry needs to keep the kitchens of Britain's 12,000 Indian restaurants and takeaways fully staffed.

The majority of these people have learned their skills over years working alongside top chefs in restaurants and hotels across Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and elsewhere.

They could walk into any curry kitchen in the UK and be immediately productive. But because they don't possess the paper qualifications, equivalent to an NVQ level 3, they will be classed as unskilled and not allowed in.

I have met several Bangladeshi restaurateurs who paid legal and regulatory fees of around £1,200 for Home Office work permits to bring chefs to this country only to have their visa requests rejected by the government's entry clearance officers in India and Bangladesh.

A recent survey by Spice Business magazine found a 15% shortfall in the number of staff needed to properly man Britain's 9,500 curry restaurants and 2,500 takeaways. That's 16,000 chefs, kitchen porters, waiters and managers who are needed now.

The government believes we can fill most of these vacancies with immigrants from Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Latvia and so on. But they know nothing of our culture, our language or, more importantly, our food. They would be square pegs in round holes.

Several of our restaurateurs have tried it, in the main unsuccessfully. The barriers are just too great to surmount.

Our customers don't want it either. The Daily Politics on BBC2 recently conducted several vox-pop street interviews which showed quite clearly that when people go to a curry restaurant, they want things to be "authentic" - dishes prepared in the traditional manner and served by "Indian" waiters.

Fortunately, all is not yet lost. We have strong allies among the Chinese community in Britain whose problems are the same as ours. We continue to lobby the government jointly and met Immigration Minister Tony McNulty last week for what was an open and frank discussion of our concerns.

Dozens of MPs are ready to support our case and have backed an Early Day Motion tabled by Leicester East MP Keith Vaz which highlighted the "disproportionate and damaging impact" the scheme will have on Indian, Chinese and other restaurants specialising in non-European cuisines which have enriched Britain's social, economic and culinary life.

We hope to convince the government that skills are not always accompanied by formal qualifications. They can simply be acquired by day-to-day learning and application.

Ali is the owner ofLe Raj restaurantin Epsom, Surrey; editor of Spice Business (the quarterly magazine for the Asian business community); and chairman of theGuild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs.

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