The Guardian Weekly

Curry crisis Restaurant­s close as visa rules keep out expert chefs

- Mark Leftly Photograph: Carl de Souza/Getty

David and Samantha Cameron enjoy a curry. They tucked into chicken korai and saag paneer at Manchester’s Saffron Lounge during the Conservati­ve party conference in October. The prime minister even pledged to protect the struggling £4.2bn ($6bn) curry industry, which employs 100,000 people, at the British Curry awards in 2013. He said he would “get the skilled Asian chefs you need” to the UK; home secretary Theresa May has admitted curry chefs are a shortage occupation.

The shortage is due to tough immigratio­n rules, so restaurant­s are unable to hire the skilled chefs they need. This makes it difficult for these businesses to grow. If the problem was acute when Cameron made his pledge, it is now a fullblown crisis. Around 600 curry restaurant­s have closed in the past 18 months, while there are fears that a further 4,000 – about a third of the industry – could shut down.

The shortage of chefs means they demand increasing­ly high wages. Dr Wali Uddin, who owns the Britannia Spice in Edinburgh, says a chef’s pay packet has doubled in the last two years, and is now £700-800 a week. “Usually I had seven chefs, but now just three,” says Uddin. “There are not enough chefs, so we can’t grow.”

Alun Sperring, owner of the Chilli Pickle in Brighton, says chefs now want free accommodat­ion, which is “totally unfeasible”. Imam Uddin, president of the Guild of Bangladesh­i Restaurate­urs in Staffordsh­ire, said Indian restaurant­s were closing at a rate of one or two a week in the West Midlands.

Restaurate­urs, led by the British Curry Awards founder Enam Ali, are pushing the government to ease immigratio­n restrictio­ns. A 75-page document Ali and his supporters have submitted to Cameron, May, employment minister Priti Patel and business secretary Sajid Javid urges them to introduce a one-year visa for chefs from subcontine­ntal Asia. If this plan isn’t adopted, warns Ali, it could hurt the Tories in elections.

Until 2005 there was a visa scheme that let curry restaurant­s fly in skilled staff, but this was closed amid allegation­s it was abused by some who wanted to settle in the UK permanentl­y. Current immigratio­n rules stipulate that a chef from outside the UK must be paid £29,570, after deductions for accommodat­ion and meals, but the jobs cannot be in a restaurant with a takeaway service, which most curry houses rely on. Ali’s proposal would limit chefs’ employment to one year with no right of return, no chance of residency or out-of-work benefits, and no bringing in of dependants.

But there seems to be opposition within the government to relaxing the rules. In a letter to a fellow MP, immigratio­n minister James Brokenshir­e stated: “The restaurant industry, like others, needs to move away from an unsustaina­ble reliance on migrant workers.” A Home Office spokespers­on said: “We want to nurture more home-grown talent … This means the restaurant sector offering training to attract and recruit resident workers to meet their staffing needs.”

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