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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 February 2008, 13:13 GMT
Hot debate over curry chef visas
By Kathryn Edwards
BBC News, Birmingham

Balti
Birmingham's Balti Triangle is among the areas suffering
Friday nights might never be the same again.

Curry houses nationwide are struggling to fill vacancies in their kitchens with the quality chefs they need.

Tight government restrictions are to blame, according to migrant campaign group the Immigration Advisory Service (IAS), which say anyone wanting a British work visa must be educated and speak good English.

These are skills that do not necessarily apply to the Bangladeshi and Pakistani chefs whose expertise helped build up Britain's curry culture.

Now restaurateurs are locked in a heated argument with Home Office officials that could even give the spiciest vindaloo a run for its money.

'Irreparable damage'

The famous sketch in the comedy show Goodness Gracious Me about "Going for an English" might end up being a reality if restaurants can only employ local people to fill their spaces.

But the locals, they say, are generally just not good enough.

Nowhere is that problem being felt more than the home of the balti - Birmingham.

The city's so-called Balti Triangle is made up of more than 50 restaurants across the areas of Sparkhill, Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath, and an estimated 20,000 baltis are served there every week.

Goodness Gracious Me
Could "Going For An English" become a reality?

Feisal Yaqub's family has been based in the heart of the city's balti land for the past 20 years and said he had seen the recruitment problem grow over that time.

Mr Yaqub, who owns the Lahore Karahi, said he had spent thousands of pounds fighting in the courts to bring over two Pakistani chefs.

"We need quality chefs, and at the moment we're not getting that in this country," he said.

"We have to go out to different countries to get the level of experience and skill that we want. If we can't do that it's bad for all restaurants."

The IAS has said that such restrictions on lower-skilled workers from outside the EU could end up causing "irreparable damage to the curry industry".

The guidelines were tightened since eastern Europeans were given employment rights, but the IAS argues those from areas such as Poland lack the "cultural sensitivity" needed to work in curry restaurants.

'Save the industry'

Abdul Latif, President of the Bangladeshi Catering Association for the Midlands, said the rules were discriminating against Asian chefs.

"They want English-speaking people," he said.

"People from Bangladesh might be a good chef but they don't need to speak good English to influence their cooking skills.

"The curry industry has been a great help to the country's economy, and the government should recognise it and help save that industry."

The IAS has now written to Home Office ministers urging them to relax the rules for catering workers from these areas, although officials said they have no plans to review the arrangements.

Work visa
Campaigners have written to ministers urging them to relax rules

Other people have argued that UK-based Bangladeshis should just be trained properly so they can deliver high-quality food.

Conservative MP Mark Pritchard has said that Office of National Statistics figures showed that Britain's Bangladeshi community had the highest unemployment rate of any other ethnic group.

He urged the government to find ways of getting those people into work rather than easing visa restrictions.

Kiran Virk, of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, joined the calls to help the curry industry, but agreed that more training was necessary.

"The local economy cannot and should not rely on migrant workers as a solution for many local businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector," he said.

"To prevent ongoing skills and labour shortages damaging the local economy, much more investment by both the state and employers is needed for effective training schemes such as apprenticeships."

SEE ALSO
Chef shortage sparks curry crisis
08 Jan 08 |  Scotland
Curry revival for the Midlands
22 Aug 02 |  England

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