Operators in the £3b ethnic restaurants sector have called on the Government to rethink its stringent new rules on bringing in workers from non-EU countries, a week after they were introduced.
Under a new annual limit introduced on 6 April, employers will only be able to bring 21,700 people from outside the EU to work in all skilled professions under Tier Two of the system. Chefs will need to prove they have a graduate-level job, speak an intermediate level of English and meet a pay level of £28,620 - much higher than most specialist chefs below sous chef level.
Enam Ali, chairman of the Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs and owner of Le Raj restaurant in Epsom, warned Caterer that restaurants were already starting to feel the strain because of the new limits and cautioned that if the situation did not change, restaurants in the sector could close.
"A lot of restaurants are now complaining. They may not be able to find a relief chef, chefs are working seven days a week," he said. "This limit sounds good for the voter in this country who has no clue about how the restaurant industry works. But they don't realise that 100,000 people who depend on this profession are now totally insecure about their jobs."
He called on the Government to shift its focus to place more emphasis on the vetting of respectable businesses and less on individual chefs, many of whom lack formal qualifications.
"Where can I find a chef who is a graduate in Bangladesh? You aren't looking for someone who can come into a kitchen and do a lecture. You are looking for people who have got the skill to do the cooking," he added.
His views were echoed by Sanjay Anand MBE, chairman of Southall restaurant and event caterer Madhu's, which also supplies Harrods with pre-prepared Indian foods.
Anand said that although he recognised the Government's need to control immigration and hoped that respectable businesses would be still be able to recruit staff, there was one significant disadvantage: "If I want a jalebi maker from Delhi, he would not have gone to college or got any degrees. His spoken English will not be terrific, so we can't get him in," he said.
And he called on the law to be amended: "I think the law should be tweaked. If a company is of a solid standing, they should be given the power to say I need this person for my business, and be able to get him or her over. On the management side, I agree with them. A front-of-house manager or F&B manager should be highly qualified, otherwise you should be able to source someone from here. But there should be a differentiation between front of house and back of house."
But Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association (BHA), which has been working with restaurants in the speciality ethic sector to carve out an exemption for a few hundred chefs within the new limits, said the Government did not appear willing to make any exceptions.
"Our view is that as far as chefs are concerned, with one or two exceptions you won't be able to bring any in," he said.
Couchman highlighted that those specialist chefs from outside the EU who were already in the country would be allowed to stay, but expressed concern for the future, as some of those chefs returned home.
"If it turns out that one of your staff wants to go back to India, for example, you have an immediate problem, " he said.
"I understand why restaurateurs would want the Government to concentrate on the establishment rather than the individual, but the rules have to be based on the qualifications of the people in question. It can't even be based on their nationality."
"We see no obvious way out but we are going to carry on the discussion with the Government and see what happens," he said.
THE NEW RULES
â- A further 1,000 visas will also be made available to people of "exceptional talent"
â- Prospective workers will need to have a graduate-level job, speak an intermediate level of English and chefs need to meet a pay level of £28,620 per annum
NON-EUROPEAN CUISINE IN THE UK
â- 20% of Michelin-starred restaurants in London are from non-European cuisines
â- The ethnic restaurant sector is worth an estimated £3b
â- One skilled non-European chef working in a specialised restaurants creates 10-12 local jobs (BHA)