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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 August, 2004, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
Britain's curry house crisis
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Britain's curry houses are suffering a staffing crisis as immigration officials tighten up on issuing work visas.

Friday nights may never be the same again.

Britons love a curry, but there are whispers in the nation's Indian restaurants of a problem more complex than the mix of spices in a garam masala.

Throughout the country, Indian restaurateurs say they are struggling with a staffing crisis. With the younger generation preferring college to the curry pot, industry insiders are looking to their homeland to fill vacancies for chefs and waiters.

But restaurateurs say immigration restrictions are exacerbating a staff shortfall that could kill off the traditional post-pub trip to the curry house.

Thousands of work visa applications are being blocked by one arm of government, despite having been given the go ahead by another. Industry representatives in the UK are lobbying MPs and appealing to the Home Office for crisis curry talks.

It's damaging to the industry - if you can't get staff then everyone will suffer
Ahmed Koysor (right), restaurateur
Ahmed Koysor says his experience is typical of many across the country. He and his partners run the Sonargaon restaurant in London. It's a slick new establishment in the heart of London's "Banglatown" - a collection of restaurants and Bangladeshi businesses around Brick Lane in the East End.

The business has tried to bring in workers from Bangladesh - but none of the recruits have been given the go-ahead.

Similar tales are reported throughout Brick Lane and other curry centres. Some have been more successful than others.

Mr Koysor rolls his eyes skywards and says visa woes are now all too familiar. Luckily, his only shortages have been with ancillary staff, rather than waiters or chefs.

"It's been really difficult to recruit locally," he said. "We have tried hiring eastern European staff but they have been mostly useless. No skills, no understanding of what we do. And besides, they need to speak the language of the kitchen if we are going to be good at what we do."

His colleague Hamid Chowdhury says staff shortages are so common the industry is facing a curry house cull.

9,000 restaurants in the UK
At least 50,000 employees
Up to 150,000 indirectly supported jobs
Majority Bangladeshi owned
Sources: Various industry estimates
"Kids don't want to get into the restaurant business. Their horizons are far bigger than before. So if we can't recruit, what are we supposed to do?"

There are no official figures but industry sources estimate 50,000 people are employed in the business - making it a bigger employer than shipbuilding.

The vast majority of establishments are actually owned by the Bangladeshi community - which is where the visa problems have emerged.

Last year, the government said it would allow workers into the UK on 12-month visas to fill shortages in catering and hospitality - the so-called "Sector Based Scheme".

If an employer can prove to the Home Office they can't recruit locally - and the bar is high - they are given permission to recruit overseas, at a cost of 153 per visa.

I know of restaurateurs so scared they will lose staff they have thought about keeping people on illegally so their business survives
Immigration advisor in the UK
The recruit must then convince immigration officials in Bangladesh that they will not overstay their limit in the UK.

While restaurants complain of not being able to locally recruit staff, there are disproportionately high levels of unemployment within the Bangladeshi community - especially in London.

Critics of work visa schemes, such as Migrationwatch UK, say that rather than turn to more immigration, this unemployment needs to be solved.

But some of restaurateurs spoken to by the BBC say taking on the long-term unemployed has been difficult in the past - not least if the individuals have problems such as drug abuse or no experience of working the long hours the business demands.

According to the Immigration Advisory Service (IAS), an independent agency with 30 years of experience in the field, such has been the demand from Indian restaurants, they used up the entire quota for Bangladesh within weeks.

It estimates the UK may have initially approved up to 10,000 work permit applications for workers from Bagladesh. But the vast majority are now being refused entry, many because officials believe they will outstay their visa. Added to that, there are numerous reports of corruption, with visas being "sold" to the highest bidders, fraud and false documents.

"No-one can appreciate how it is that two parts of the same government department can give conflicting decisions," says Keith Best, of the IAS.

"Employers are angry because they have paid for work permits but don't get the workers.

"All this is because of a lack of joined-up government between the Home Office and posts overseas and lack of proper planning. There is also evidence of fraudulent applications, deceit over the age qualification and forged documents ."

The Home Office was not available for comment, but the scheme in question was not designed to solve restaurant staffing.

And immigration chiefs have told the industry that no more Bangladeshi nationals will be allowed in for now because their quota if full.

None of which is of any comfort to restaurateurs.

Introduced in 2003
Permits temporary foreign workers for 12 months
Designed to solve short-term recruitment problems
Quotas for industries and nationalities
Bangladeshi quota oversubscribed and now closed
Ashraf Uddin, secretary general of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, is appealing to the Home Office for urgent talks.

"We think we are 20,000 people short," said Mr Uddin. "We cannot understand what the government is achieving by stopping people coming when they would contribute to the economy and pay taxes. The past year has been a waste of time and money."

Industry leaders say they support govenrment's requirement to scrutinise foreign recruitment - but, in a letter to ministers, they fear media hullabaloo over immigration has drowned out their concerns..

Mr Uddin warned the immediate effect would be a loss of customer confidence in a piece of modern British life.

"In 1991 many restaurants closed [in the recession]. We got over that but those times are returning again."

One Bangladeshi immigration advisor, working in London's East End, showed the BBC a number of refused cases from across the country.

"The people I have worked with recognise they should meet very strict criteria because immigration is a serious business.

"But I know of restaurateurs who are so scared they will lose the staff they have managed to recruit, they have thought about keeping people on illegally so their business survives.

"Now if a restaurateur does that, who is making that person illegal? Is it him, or the government? Ministers need to create a solution by opening up the system."

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