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How Brexit Will Affect London’s Famously Diverse Restaurant Scene

Curry houses are already feeling the pinch of tight immigration policies

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Recently, British headlines focused on a burger chain that reportedly worked with government immigration forces to deport 35 of its own staff. Last month, Byron Burger organized a hoax training day for all its back-of-house staff in 12 of its branches. Employees arrived; immigration officers came in shortly thereafter and started listing names. Those called were placed in the back of vans and taken to immigration detention centers. This controversial immigration sting has, understandably, been met with disappointment — there are currently protests and boycotts underway.

Others feel Byron was simply doing the right thing, especially as the Home Office (the UK’s version of the Department of Homeland Security) claims that Byron had been provided with fake "right to work" documentation. The UK’s penalty for employing illegal immigrants — £20,000 per worker — is a hefty fine, which Byron, a small chain, could not afford. In an effort to deter those that hire and exploit migrant workers, the introduction of the Immigration Act 2016 targeting "illegal workers and rogue employers" should technically punish the employer, too, but it seems Byron avoided this by cooperating with government officials.

This controversy is simply the latest in a series of ongoing immigration drama in the UK. Fear of deportation aside, the requirements for legal entry border on impossible for most — especially for those in the restaurant business hoping to employ a non-EU international chef. And Brexit, the culmination of a growing anti-immigration sentiment, will only make it worse for immigrant workers, the force behind the hospitality industry both in the UK and abroad.

Close-up of curry in a London market mubus7/Shutterstock

Brexit, an abbreviation of British Exit and not a high-fiber cereal name, was a referendum held on June 23rd of this year. The question posed to the public — to stay in the European Union or leave — resulted in 51.9 percent of voters deciding that the EU jig was up. A member of the EU since 1973, the UK had strengthened its economy, human rights, employment law, and its security. But ever since the enlargement of the Union in 2004, the "waves" of immigration from the new EU member countries has grown from 732,000 EU-born UK workers in 2004 to 1.9 million EU in 2015. To make this influx more noticeable, as of 2015, 60 percent of these workers are from the 2004 new member states. This did what it does to any self-respecting European country that blanketed the world with its unsolicited colonialism: It sent itself into a state of "They’re Ruining the Country" panic.

Far-right political parties gained momentum, and immigration rules became harsher: tactics such as "Go Home or Face Arrest" vans came about, and the Immigration Act 2014 targeted landlords renting to migrants. With the reelection of the Conservative Party, the government has further encroached on families and businesses. Before she left her previous post to become the new Prime Minister, Theresa May’s updated Immigration Act 2016 made the UK an uncomfortable place for non-EU migrants.

Immigration rules discriminate against curry houses in particular: "These policies are killing the industry."

The UK post-Brexit is in a state of limbo, and every industry is tentatively awaiting for some clarity. The culinary world, in particular, isn’t hopeful. Migrants currently make up 37 percent of all skilled hospitality workers, such as chefs. Immigration firms — like London’s OTS Solicitors — have seen a surge in calls from hospitality workers nervous about deportation.

But although the Leave campaign consisted mostly of white British-born voters, some South Asian restaurateurs in the UK have, surprisingly, advocated exiting the EU as well. Chef Oli Khan, the VP of Bangladesh Caterer’s Association — the organization representing around 12,000 British-Bangladeshi restaurants in the country — believes Brexit will ease immigration regulations for Bangladeshi chefs who want to cook in the kitchens of the many curry houses in the UK. He is hoping that leaving the EU will give the Commonwealth countries — of which India and Bangladesh are members — more leverage with immigration policies. Currently, the UK’s visa for skilled chefs falls under the Tier 2 visa: Eligibility requirements are a minimum salary of £35,000 (around $45,475) for each skilled worker, and applicants cannot work in an establishment that offers takeout. Because takeout service offered in almost all sit-down curry restaurants is a huge source of income, these immigration policies punish these establishments in particular.

"It’s discrimination," Khan says. "These policies are killing the industry." According to Khan, migrants from within the UK "don’t want to work in the curry industry. They want to come and get money but don’t care about Indian food." Essentially, he argues, Indian and Bangladeshi chefs care more about their own cuisine and have more experience cooking it. Despite the restaurant industry growing as a whole, many Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants have been closing their doors.

Teni Shahiean, principal solicitor at OTS Solicitors, explains why the Tier 2 requirements are so harsh on restaurants hoping to bring over a chef from anywhere outside the EU. "Certain types of chefs may qualify if they fall into the shortage occupation list," she says, referring to the list of occupations that UK employers are having trouble filling domestically. It’s designed to be a temporary solution, hence the strict rules and constant updates. "Chefs must be highly specialized, in executive chef, head chef, or sous chef roles, and other requirements include the number of chefs in the establishment and the type of establishment they work in," Shahiean says. "You can have a specialty chef of a certain cuisine, but the Home Office has a very stringent criteria they must meet and it is restricted."

According to Shahiean, Khan’s pro-Brexit strategy likely won’t work. "For those situations in particular, leaving the EU wouldn't have a huge difference," she says. The very real possibility, she mentions, is that the uncertainty surrounding Brexit will deter both employers and possible employees. "The Home Office has strict requirements with these sectors. This is why employers are backing away."

And back away they have. The chef shortage problem in both the US and UK is nothing new, but the extremely low numbers of chefs have had some adverse effects on business. Between a rock and a hard place, restaurateurs hoping to provide authentically cooked meals to their patrons can’t bring over chefs, nor can they find chefs from within the UK. As a result, some restaurant owners are intentionally simplifying their menu to cope with their staff shortage. Over the coming months, Khan says that he will advise restaurants to reduce menu items, serve "English style" (his words) plated meals with the rice and curry together on one plate, or provide buffets to help with staff shortages. "This is a short-term solution," he says.

Meanwhile, franchises and restaurant groups have had tentative growth. MW Eat is the restaurant group behind Masala Zone and Michelin-starred Amaya, and Busaba Eathai is a chain of casual Thai restaurants by Hakkasan creator and restaurant giant Alan Yau. They have both reduced UK expansion plans, and menus have been simplified to make it easier for non-native chefs to cook up faster.

Within the UK, many initiatives have attempted to combat this and encourage from within the borders, but to no avail. People 1st, a skills and workforce development agency, recently had to walk away from an initiative to encourage recruitment for Asian restaurants due to "challenges recruiting interested individuals," they stated in a press release. The group still plans to launch a large scale body of research, and "a key aspect of this will be to examine the impact of immigration restrictions on bringing chefs into the UK from outside the EU."

Some restaurant owners are intentionally simplifying their menus to cope with the ongoing staff shortage.

Bigger brands are trying to take a stab at solving this problem, too. Cobra Beer, an Indian beer company, recently partnered with chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon Club to launch a skills-sharing initiative to help with the Indian chef shortage. "We know from speaking with many ethnic restaurants that there is a real shortage of skilled chefs in Britain, due in part to our rigid immigration laws," Lord Karan Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra Beer, said earlier this summer. Seeing as there is little wiggle room for changing immigration laws, developing skills from within is the only plausible solution. Hopefully, with the backing of a big company and high-end chefs, this can inspire some internal growth: Chef Oli Khan planned a course in Barking and Dagenham College, and could only fill three out of 10 spots. The course was unsuccessful in launching.

So what is the future of British dining if the government itself prevents talent from coming, and the industry finds it hard to encourage talent from within? Shahiean says that it’s not looking good if it keeps going the way it is, especially post-Brexit. "Some employers from certain industries are considering moving their business to different countries post-Brexit, and if this happens, it may make the situation harder for migrants," she says.

The British government, with its fear mongering and harsh immigration rules, has demonstrated that it is the enemy of its own culinary progress — and unfortunately for diners across the UK, that might soon become more obvious on the plate. There’s a morbid image of diverse restaurants in the future — buffet style, bland spices, stark menus, all cooked by a kitchen team that crash-coursed a cuisine into a one-week trip. The UK often boasts its diversity, but unfortunately, this enthusiasm doesn’t extend to the very people responsible for it. For many businessmen and restaurateurs, it’s hard not to feel resentful. When speaking to City AM about the British government’s stringent regulations, Bilimoria said, "It’s almost as though we are an ungrateful country." He’s right.

Pelin Keskin is a writer and editor from London who gets emotional over fried chicken, stationery, and dachshund puppies. Justin Tran is an illustrator living in Richmond, Virginia.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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