Brexit is killing the great British curry house

Prime Minister Theresa May's target of reducing net annual migration by the tens of thousands have put restaurants that hire immigrants in a tight spot.
Prime Minister Theresa May's target of reducing net annual migration by the tens of thousands have put restaurants that hire immigrants in a tight spot.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Mr Syed Joynu was in for a rude shock on a September morning when he walked into Indos, the curry house he owns just outside London. It was already 10.30am and not a single employee had turned up.

Distraught, he called four of his Romanian staff. Nobody responded. Two others, who also quit their jobs the same day without any notice, later told him the Romanians had already left the country for good, and soon thereafter, Mr Joynu, 62, was forced to shut down the business that earned more than 400,000 pounds (S$704,810) a year.

This was nothing like what he was promised in the Brexit campaign he supported. Mr Joynu was told there would be plenty of workers from South Asia and that restaurants specialising in spicy vindaloos would thrive if only the United Kingdom could break free from rules allowing the free movement of people between European Union member states.

Instead, immigration has become tighter, business has suffered, and the workers from eastern Europe he had come to rely on have fled. Getting chefs over to work in Britain's cherished Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants is near impossible under current immigration laws: Even the Queen is not paying cooks in Buckingham Palace enough to comply with the rules on foreign skilled workers.

"We didn't realise what would happen after Brexit and thought we'd be better off," said Mr Joynu. "If there's a second vote now, I'd vote to remain in the EU."

Indos is one of the many British curry houses closing down at a pace of one a day as a shortage of specialist kitchen staff makes the business impossible to run.

It is an example of how Brexit is betraying the hopes of many who campaigned for it. With immigration considered a driving force behind the Vote Leave referendum win in 2016, the Brexit effect is clear in official data. The number of European Union citizens working in the UK fell by the most on record in the third quarter, and they are not being replaced.

Prime Minister Theresa May has a target of reducing net annual migration to the tens of thousands from more than 200,000 currently. Her government is aiming for a system after the divorce that gives ministers the flexibility to ease rules for countries with which they strike trade deals, with high-skilled workers prioritised and low-skilled immigration curbed.

Curry house owners sought to avoid a system like that when they campaigned for the UK to leave the EU. Almost two decades after chicken tikka masalawas unofficially declared Britain's national dish, pro-Leave politicians promised restaurants higher inflows from South Asia with easier visa rules, shutting the door on European workers, allowing lower salary-thresholds to hire overseas staff and even regularising undocumented workers.

 
 
 

Chefs are in short supply. The industry, which contributes US$5.5 billion (S$7.5 billion) to the British economy a year, is struggling to find the additional 30,000 additional workers it immediately needs.

Current rules mandate paying salaries of 35,000 pounds to offer a curry chef's job to a South Asian, an amount out of reach for most of smaller restaurants, said Mr Bajloor Khan, President of UK Bangladesh Catalysts of Commerce and Industry. When Buckingham Palace advertised for a royal chef earlier this year, it offered a salary of just over 21,000 pounds.

The other issue is providing evidence that a potential employee is skilled. Without enough formal establishments teaching hospitality or catering in places such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, it is hard to get visas even if the owners are paying the mandated salary, he said.

Conservative lawmaker Paul Scully says he will lobby for relaxing the rules for chefs as Britain revamps its system, but he sees the answer closer to home. "The only long-term viable solution" is "finding a more effective way to recruit chefs in the domestic UK market", said the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the British curry catering industry.

That was not what restaurants had in mind. Three years ago, award-winning chef Oli Khan marshalled his troops - 150,000 workers from 12,000 restaurants across the UK - and campaigned hard for Vote Leave. As the secretary-general of Bangladesh Caterers Association, he believed in Brexiteers like Mr Boris Johnson and Ms Priti Patel when they launched the campaign called "Save Our Curry Houses".

The industry, which traces its origins to 1809, now faces a painful decline, he said.

"I have been living in this country for 30 years, and I have never seen a crisis like the one we are facing at the moment," Chef Khan said. "We have been given lots of false hopes. We've been used."