The UK based Indian catering industry is a unique and flourishing British industry that is worth around £4.5bn and employing more than 100,000 people. This industry has been contributing approximately £1.5bn every year towards the British economy. With this industry more than a million people are directly or indirectly involved.
The Indian curry outlets in the UK (which are mainly owned by the people of Bangladeshi origin) are different from the traditional Indian restaurants in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan. In fact, the UK based restaurants are British version of curry houses than the original ones that are based in the Indian subcontinent. Over the course of time, the UK based Indian curries have collectively become a home grown industry in all respects – be it in form, content and taste. This unique curry industry is now trying to establish itself in the EU and North America. So the matter now stands as the British brand of curry that has become exportable commodity of trade. The government needs to help this industry so that it can sustain and be exported to the western part of globe. By exporting this unique commodity to the EU and North America, the UK based catering industry will help bring huge foreign currency to the UK. Almost all Indian restaurant owners are British citizens of Bangladeshi origin. They are settled in the UK and have their own family, business and investment here. By exporting the British brand of Indian curries to the EU and North America, they will certainly bring profit over here in the UK rather than sending money to their country of origin. Thus, the British economy will directly and indirectly be benefitted.
The UK catering sector has been suffering from acute shortage of skilled manpower. The main reason for shortage is that the cuisine is in high demand but at the same time skilled manpower is neither trained up nor could easily be brought from overseas. There has been a huge gap between the supply of skilled staff and the increasing demand of British made Indian cuisine. And the gap has been gradually widening week by week. Enough initiatives have not been taken to train home grown people here in order to meet the pressing demand of this industry. The government over the years overlooked the issue while they were introducing tougher legislative measures one after another. The British-Bangladeshi people, over the decades, worked hard to develop a fully fledged catering industry without any help from the government. We firmly believe that the government should divert the resources to this important industry to train people leaving schools and colleges to meet the huge demands of the skilled staff in this sector. The current/ongoing apprenticeship programme needs to be adopted with the UK based Indian restaurant business set up taking on board their needs, demands and necessities. The age limit of the apprenticeship programme should be changed from 16-18 to at least 16-25.
Given the fact that training people to meet the pressing demand requires some time, the catering industry needs to be able to recruit skilled staff from overseas for the time being. The problem of the shortage of skilled staff has reached to an endemic level. The BBCA has been facing huge pressure to tackle this issue. We, the restaurant owners, have tried to recruit people Eastern Europe (such as Poland, Romania, Bulgaria etc.) to alleviate the problems, but these initiatives have not worked either due to the apparent language and cultural barriers between these people and other existing employees in the industry. The only solution is to be able to recruit skilled staff from the non EU countries. But this attempt along with this flourishing industry has been squeezed by economic down turn and the government’s strict immigration control.
The current immigration rules providing requirements and criteria to be met in order to be able to bring skilled staff from overseas for the catering industry are very strict and tough. The financial/salary thresholds that have been set are almost impossible for most of the restaurant owners to fulfil/meet. It is now impossible for take away owners to bring skilled staff from overseas. The annual net income/profits of many small restaurants cannot even go above the salary threshold that is required to be met in order to bring a single skilled person from overseas. These have led to a situation now where only a handful of restaurants can be eligible to apply to bring skilled staff from overseas to meet their ongoing shortage of staff. This is, in our humble view, unfair and unreasonable for the small and medium size restaurants.
It is now very tough to get a Tier 2 Licence to be able to recruit suitable skilled staff from overseas. The bureaucratical complexities, high threshold of salaries well above to other comparable jobs and rapid changing of rules and guidance of the Home Office have made the matter worse. Having gone through all these hurdles, even if some restaurants get sponsorship licence, it often emerges that the quota has been filled in or closed.
If the problem of skilled staff shortage is not addressed urgently, then the consequence will be that the restaurants and take aways will continue to close at random. Currently, on average two restaurants are being closed down every week. If this trend goes on, it will have catastrophic effect on the catering sector and on those who have been associated with this sector. The UK based restaurants and take aways closure means:
- Thousands of people involved in this unique catering sector will lose their jobs.
- Many supporting businesses (such as, Cash & Curry, Vegetable Shops and other shops/businesses that supply row materials to the restaurants and take aways etc.) will lose their businesses. Consequently, most of them will be forced to be closed down.
- The UK based Indian restaurants owned by ethnic minority are contributing towards creating a cohesive and inclusive society. Close down of Indian restaurants and take aways will have a knock on effect on communal balance. A specified section of the society will be poorer and consequently charity organisations of that section of the society will not be able to operate as strongly as they are operating in today’s Britain. The British-Bangladeshi community will suffer most.
- The huge rate of unemployment and turbulence in the catering sector will create tension and frustration in the society. Necessity knows no bounds. Consequently, those turbulence and tension will be translated into crimes and hazards.
Given the above facts, scenario and information, I believe the government should take following measures urgently:
- a)Take a proper initiative to train home grown people to be able to meet the pressing demands of the UK based Indian catering industry. The current/ongoing apprenticeship programme needs to be adopted with the UK based Indian restaurant business set up taking on board their needs, demands and necessities. The age limit of the apprenticeship programme should be changed from 16-18 to at least 16-25.
- b)Immigration rules and the provisions made under these immigration rules should be made easier so that restaurant owners can recruit skilled staff from overseas. Particularly, the rigid quota system should be abolished and salary level should significantly be lowered.
A provision should be made so that the organisations [such as British Bangladeshi Caterers Association (BBCA)] representing ten thousands UK based Indian restaurants and take aways) are effectively consulted and their concerns are properly taken on board before introducing any legal provision affecting our industry.
Barrister Nazir Ahmed FRSA FCMI FCArb: a UK based legal expert, analyst, writer and columnist. He can be contacted via e-mail: [email protected]
**This article/column is the modified version of the memorandum submitted to the British Prime Minister from the BBCA.