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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

UK's curry industry in danger as Brexit nears

A kitchen worker plates up a curry dish in the kitchen of the Indo Indian fine dining restaurant in Chobham, U.K., on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. Almost two decades after chicken tikka masala was unofficially declared Britain's national dish, pro-Leave politicians promised restaurants higher inflows from South Asia with easier visa rules, shutting the door on European workers, allowing lower salary-thresholds to hire overseas staff and even regularizing undocumented workers. Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg
A kitchen worker plates up a curry dish in the kitchen of the Indo Indian fine dining restaurant in Chobham, U.K., on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. Almost two decades after chicken tikka masala was unofficially declared Britain's national dish, pro-Leave politicians promised restaurants higher inflows from South Asia with easier visa rules, shutting the door on European workers, allowing lower salary-thresholds to hire overseas staff and even regularizing undocumented workers. Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Syed Joynu was in for a rude shock on a September morning when he walked into Indos—the curry house he owns just outside London. It was already 10:30 a.m. and not a

single employee had turned up.

Distraught, he called four of his Romanian staff. Nobody responded. Two others, who also quit their jobs the same day without any notice, later told him the Romanians had already

left the country for good, and soon thereafter, Mr Joynu, 62, was

forced to shut down the business that earned more than £400,000 ($500,000) a year.

This was nothing like what he was promised in the Brexit

campaign he supported. Mr Joynu was told there’d be plenty of

workers from South Asia and that restaurants specialising in

spicy vindaloos would thrive if only the UK could break free

from rules allowing the free movement of people between European Union member states.

Instead, immigration has become tighter, business has

suffered, and the workers from eastern Europe he had come to

rely on have fled. Getting chefs over to work in Britain’s

cherished Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants is near impossible

under current immigration laws: Even the Queen isn’t paying

cooks in Buckingham Palace enough to comply with the rules on

foreign skilled workers.

“We didn’t realise what would happen after Brexit and

thought we’d be better off,” said Mr Joynu. “If there’s a second

vote now, I’d vote to remain in the EU.”

Indos is one of the many British curry houses closing down

at a pace of one a day as a shortage of specialist kitchen staff

makes the business impossible to run.

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It’s an example of how Brexit is betraying the hopes of

many who campaigned for it. With immigration considered a

driving force behind the Vote Leave referendum win in 2016, the

Brexit effect is clear in official data. The number of European

Union citizens working in the UK fell by the most on record in

the third quarter, and they’re not being replaced.

Prime Minister Theresa May has a target of reducing net

annual migration to the tens of thousands from more than 200,000 currently. Her government is aiming for a system after the divorce that gives ministers the flexibility to ease rules for

countries with which they strike trade deals, with high-skilled

workers prioritised and low-skilled immigration curbed.

Curry house owners sought to avoid a system like that when

they campaigned for the UK to leave the EU. Almost two decades after chicken tikka masala was unofficially declared Britain’s national dish, pro-Leave politicians promised restaurants higher inflows from South Asia with easier visa rules, shutting the door on European workers, allowing lower salary-thresholds to hire overseas staff and even regularising undocumented workers.

Chefs are in short supply. The industry, which contributes

$5.5 billion to the British economy a year, is struggling to

find the additional 30,000 additional workers it immediately

needs.

Current rules mandate paying salaries of £35,000 to

offer a curry chef’s job to a South Asian, an amount out of

reach for most of smaller restaurants, said Bajloor Khan,

President of UK Bangladesh Catalysts of Commerce and Industry.

When Buckingham Palace advertised for a royal chef earlier this

year, it offered a salary of just over £21,000.

The other issue is providing evidence that a potential

employee is skilled. Without enough formal establishments

teaching hospitality or catering in places like Bangladesh and

Pakistan, it’s hard to get visas even if the owners are paying

the mandated salary, he said.

Conservative lawmaker Paul Scully says he’ll lobby for

relaxing the rules for chefs as Britain revamps its system, but

he sees the answer closer to home. “The only long-term viable

solution” is “finding a more effective way to recruit chefs in

the domestic UK market,” said the chair of the all-party

parliamentary group on the British curry catering industry.

That’s not what restaurants had in mind. Three years ago,

award-winning chef Oli Khan marshaled his troops—150,000 workers from 12,000 restaurants across the UK—and campaigned hard for Vote Leave. As the secretary general of Bangladesh Caterers Association, he believed in Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Priti Patel when they launched the campaign called “Save Our Curry Houses.”

The industry, which traces its origins to 1809, now faces a

painful decline, he said.

“I have been living in this country for 30 years, and I have never seen a crisis like the one we are facing at the moment,” Oli Khan said. “We have been given lots of false hopes. We’ve been used.”