Your favourite curry houses won’t survive Brexit – ‘vindaloo visas’ will speed up their demise

These businesses have been a part of British history for 200 years. But with persistent restaurant staff shortages and plans to shake up the industry, time is running out for them

Rabina Khan
Thursday 14 November 2019 12:03 GMT
British curry industry ‘dying’ because of Brexit and staff shortages, leading restaurateurs warn

As we near the end of the annual curry award season, we cannot deny that the industry is in trouble. Despite Indian restaurants and takeaways contributing more than £5bn to our economy, and being an integral part of British life and a bastion of multiculturalism, the industry is facing a painful decline, with an increasing number of curry houses shutting down every week.

A year ago, I wrote about how Brexit has divided the curry industry, with curry houses struggling to recruit staff to meet demand following the tightening of Tier 2 visa restrictions, as well as rising costs. Since that time, the situation has declined further.

Approximately 87 per cent of Indian restaurants in the UK are run and owned by Bangladeshis, and a lack of home-grown, skilled chefs in the UK means that recruiting staff from South Asia has become crucial to the survival of these businesses. British-born children of restaurant owners no longer want to follow in their parents’ footsteps and are choosing to pursue more academic careers.

In his speech at the Euro Asia Curry Awards earlier this week, Lord Richard Newby said: “The curry industry will only thrive if the economy is doing well and people have cash to spend on meals out and takeaways. Brexit will reduce growth and productivity. This will reduce the amount people are paid. A hard Brexit will also see a further fall in the pound, which will put up costs to curry houses and increase inflation. All this is bad news for the sector.”

When, on average, 30 per cent of food imports come from the EU, the governor of the Bank of England estimates that the price of produce such as fruit and vegetables will increase by 5-10 per cent after Brexit. Highlighting the threat that leaving the EU poses to these businesses, British Curry Awards Founder, Enam Ali, said: "These are essential food supplies for our industry and we worry about this prospect and the impact it may have on our diners by way of a hike in menu prices.”

The 15th annual British Curry Awards, dubbed the “Curry Oscars”, is due to take place on Monday 25 November, where, among other topics, continuing challenges facing restaurants, particularly in the wake of the Brexit extension and uncertainty, will be addressed.

In 2017, the then Liberal Democrat Leader, Sir Vince Cable, called on the government to introduce temporary “vindaloo visas” to help address the problem of curry restaurant staff shortages. Two years later, his call has been answered with Priti Patel, the home secretary’s announcement to introduce such measures, which would lift immigration restrictions on skilled chefs from South Asia, thereby removing the recruitment dilemma for restaurant owners.

But will this really work when the other problems of rising food costs, increase in rents, rising salaries and even competition from British supermarkets, remain? We also need to read the small print to understand what the provision of a “vindaloo visa” really means.

Current rules will enforce salaries of £35,000 to South Asian chefs, an amount that would likely bankrupt smaller restaurants. It’s an especially unreasonable request when pitted against similar roles. A year ago, for example, Buckingham Palace was offering a salary of just over £21,000 for a royal chef.

The British Curry Awards 2014

Food unites people; it is central to daily life, social bonding, and an array of important events. We have an insatiable appetite for foreign cuisine and curry tops the list. Curry houses are part of our history and have been in Britain for over 200 years, so to face the possibility of extinction would be tragic and would certainly have an adverse impact on our economy.

In his famous “chicken tikka masala speech” in 2001, foreign secretary Robin Cook spoke about the importance of British identity and celebrating Britishness, boosting our economy through our relations with foreign countries and quite rightly pointing out that “the British are not a race, but a gathering of countless different races and communities, the vast majority of which were not indigenous to these islands.” He described chicken tikka masala as a “true British national dish” and said that we should recognise the enormous contribution that the multicultural communities make to “strengthening our economy, supporting public services and to enriching our culture and cuisine.”

It is evident that political parties of all persuasions value the curry industry, but saving Britain’s curry houses requires action. When will we see it?

Rabina Khan is specialist advisor to Lib Dem House of Lords

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