By ITRAT BASHIR
The future of British curry houses, which have become a part of British food heritage, looks gloomy as the trade body of 12,000 curry houses warns of more closure of these restaurants.
The sector, with a turnover of annual 4.2 billion pounds and employing over 80,000 people faces the challenges of tough immigration law and the rising cost of doing business. According to one estimate popularly quoted by
Indian restaurant owners, 2000 Indian restaurants have closed down in the UK in the last five years, which is almost two curry houses every single day.
Bangladesh Caters Association UK president Pasha Kandaker being passionate about his business felt insecure and cheated by the government. He said the British curry houses have suffered for over a decade; aging chefs and tight immigration rules have created an acute shortage of staff. This is not helped by the fact that the new Asian generation is least interested in adopting a career in Indian catering due to odd hours and unattractive pay.
“Our children refuse to join the family business and opt for lucrative jobs after leaving universities. And now with the inflexible immigration rules, where are we supposed to get the staff from?”
The immigration rule is tough on the migration of skilled workers from outside the European Union; restaurants must offer a salary of at least 29,750 pounds in order for their employees to get a UK visa, which the owners feel is not financially viable for them to offer such salaries.
Being critical of the government’s tough stance on their non- European Union (EU) employees, Pasha said the rising cost of food ingredients, high local rates and taxes, and low profits do not give them the margin to offer such a salary. “A small percentage of the restaurants that are bigger will absorb high salaries, but most of the small curry houses will go out of business,” he added.
He himself being an owner of many Indian restaurants in Kent, Pasha faces the same problem. He believes that after failing to cope with the migration from the EU countries, Prime Minister David Cameron has come hard on non- EU. “We are being victimised,” he said. “Our children refuse to join the family business and opt
for lucrative jobs after leaving universities. And now with the inflexible immigration rules, where are we supposed to get the staff from?” he said.
“The government has to intervene to save this industry; it needs to take steps to ensure availability of homegrown talent for the curry houses,” he added.
Muhammad Salique, who runs Diwana Bhel Poori House in London, also had similar apprehensions in his mind. Although he is lucky to have a chef as his partner, he also worries about the scarcity of staff trained in Indian cooking.
“Availability of staff, especially chefs, is a big issue for us. Unsocial hours and low pays have made this job unpopular among the local people, but high salaries are not sustainable for us due to the high cost of doing business and low profit margins,” he said.
He agreed that tight immigration rules have played a big part in the shortage, which has made it almost impossible for curry houses to employ non-EU staff. He said that on average chefs earn between 20,000 and 25,000 pounds per annum and the Indian restauranteurs are not in a position to meet the salary cap set by the government for employing non-EU staff. “The government did try to fill the gap through training European Union immigrants in the art of Indian cooking, but they could not come up to the expectation,” he added.
In response to the national curry crisis, a Bangladeshi community TV channel has set up a media platform entitled ‘Catering Circle’ in a move to bring together the business owners of the curry industry and address the issues they are facing. Ahmed Us-Samad Chowdhury, chief advisor to the Catering Circle, Chairman of Channel S TV and one time owner of 10 restaurants, disclosed that there is no doubt that curry houses in the UK are facing tough time and it is particularly hit hard by tough immigration rules. “There is a lot of uneasiness among the owners of curry houses and fear the possibility of going out of business.”
He sees no support from the government for the curry industry, which he claimed to be one of the top five industries in the UK. “There are no training institutes to nurture local talent in the art of Indian cooking and there are no government incentives to attract local people to this industry. Curry houses are ready to absorb a large
number of people with the right skills”, he added.