Staff crisis worsens and still no solution in sight

June 5, 2013 No Comments

1The curry sector faces a whole host of problems at the present time. But top of the list are the consequences of the government’s tougher line on immigration. It is very difficult to get staff to fill vacancies across the board in curry restaurants, including chefs, waiters and kitchen porters, and this means that many restaurants are deciding to close, or are putting their business on the market for sale, because they can’t get the staff.

Several others are putting expansion plans on hold at a cost to the economy. Md. S. Islam, of Green Spice in Kent, one of the younger generation restaurant owners, said, “The opportunity we have to expand the business has been significantly affected by the shortage of skilled labour available to curry restaurants.”

It is perhaps the shortage of qualified chefs that is the really big issue, as that is at the heart of the quality provided by a restaurant business. If you can’t find good quality, skilled chefs then the business will inevitably suffer, as customers will tell the difference. However with the new rules in place it is almost impossible to bring in a well qualified, experienced curry chef from abroad.

Syedur Rahman Renu, owner of Daruchini Restaurant Group in Berkshire, says, “Running a number of restaurants nowadays is such a headache, especially when you cannot find skilled staff to work in the kitchen. Even if you do find one you risk a £10,000 fine if you wrongly check his documents.”

There are signs that rather than growing, as it has done over the past 20 years, the spice restaurant sector is now starting to contract as even successful owners find it hard to keep going because of the lack of staff and risk of penalties if they employ the ‘wrong’ people.

A Buckinghamshire-based owner, S. Akhter, has decided to call it a day as a result of the problems he has faced. He told Spice Business: “I have to reluctantly put my restaurant for sale as it was becoming too stressful for me to run as you cannot find skilled chefs in the UK.”

Traditional staffing agencies are also feeling the pinch. S. B. Faruk of Shahnan bureau comments, “I have been running Shahnan employment agency for over 30 years and was recently forced to close down the business as the demand for skilled labour in the curry restaurant sector is huge whereas the supply of this kind of labour is almost nil. My agency has suffered a lot because of the lack of skilled labour in the UK to cope with the demand. It is indeed a very sad situation which has led me to concentrate mainly on the training and educational aspects in the curry industry.”

Curry restaurants have tried recruiting within the UK and the European Union, but with limited success. Restaurateurs have spent large sums of money – around £1,000 per person – to give European staff the necessary training, but quite often they stay only a few weeks before going for another job. There is no commitment, as many European staff do not see working in the curry restaurant sector as a career.

The Hospitality Guild which has set up the so-called Curry Colleges hasn’t been able to help the situation. So far it has failed to persuade British youngsters to choose to become curry chefs and many believe the exercise has not been beneficial to the sector at the cost of a lot of taxpayers’ money. The need for chefs is right now. These centres may create chefs in 3-4 years, restaurateurs believe, but in the meantime the chef shortage crisis remains.

The key point is that the skills needed for a curry chef are complex and take a lot of time to produce. Dipna Anand, owner of the Brilliant Restaurant in Southall, and British Curry Awards 2012 Personality of the Year, says, “It takes time to train a chef to become an expert in Indian cuisine and chefs with the skills we require are tough to find today. As restaurateurs, we are unable to get the chefs from aboard with the tight immigration clamp down and thus must educate and skill existing individuals that we have access to in this country. This is somewhat challenging and will take considerable time. The UK market demands high quality cooking by experienced chefs and we need to find solutions as soon as possible.”

Local job centres have also not been particularly helpful in coping with this problem. As Mahtab Miah from Vujon Restaurant, award winning restaurant in Newcastle says, “You hardly get any response from your adverts. Chef jobs still remain unfilled as despite unemployment few choose to become a chef.”

Training needs are a significant issue. With all the necessary records and paperwork that has to be done in the kitchen on a daily basis to ensure the restaurant is working towards the HACCP standards, additional knowledge amongst the kitchen personnel is required. However with more temporary staff or part timers filling positions in restaurants or takeaways, many don’t have the right mind-set to really absorb the need to stick by certain principles, thereby jeopardising the business in question.

Trainers visit restaurants and educate the kitchen staff only for them to leave shortly afterwards. So the owner has to invest again in training to ensure the new recruits have their hygiene certificates. This is an expensive process, especially for small businesses, which face the added pressure of keeping a maximum hygiene rating through their local borough ‘scores on the door’ system.

Spice Business campaigned against the Points Based System (PBS) in the UK when it was introduced by the Labour Government, pointing out that it was not workable for the industry. The Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs also warned the Labour Government about the PBS and now the present Government confirms its claims were correct. However the current Government is also on the wrong path and needs to look again at its immigration rules as they relate to the catering and hospitality sector. If it relaxes the system for a few years until the UK has managed to produce more home grown chefs for the ethnic restaurant sector, it will surely be a big help to the industry and encourage it to start growing again.

Immigration raids have also caused considerable harm to the curry industry and many restaurateurs who have suffered at the hands of the UK Borders Agency feel victimised. Raids often take place when restaurants are full of customers and appear designed to create the maximum adverse impact on the business. The practice of ‘naming and shaming’ in local papers and online news clearly undermines all the hard work over many years to build up a business with a good reputation.

Hans Ram, CEO of the Goldstar Chefs – Recruitment Agency and Sponsor Licensing Specialists for Britain’s Curry Industry said, “The British appetite for Indian and Oriental cuisine has culminated into a massive industry generating billions of pounds in revenue. Such has been the explosion in numbers of restaurants in the last 20 years, and continuing present day growth, that the industry has become a victim of its own success in the area of human resources. This is mainly due to a nationwide shortage of specialist chefs within the British labour market with the skills and desire to work in the trade. However the most profound present day cause of chronic staff shortages is the diminishing supply of work permit chefs as they exercise their permanent residency entitlement (also referred to as indefinite leave to remain) and immediately opt out of existing employment. The industry has become the biggest casualty of recent constraints within work related immigration policy, and policy makers misjudgement of its traditional reliance of overseas sourced skilled chefs. The government urgently needs to address this problem from the perspective of a landmark industry whose product and service is in constant and ever increasing demand. Tens of thousands of livelihoods and business legacies are now under threat due to severe government restrictions that have emanated from recommendations made by uninformed advisory bodies that have little or no awareness of the Asian cuisine industry business model.

Thousands of restaurants up and down the country are already suffering from staff shortages. The industry simply cannot operate let alone grow without supply of relevant skilled workforce. If the government does not allow the industry to access desperately needed skilled chefs before too long there will be inevitable closures and thousands of direct and indirect job losses. The failure to correctly identify our industry’s needs and apply correct workable solutions will lead to the demise of an essential part of British life, both for those who make a living from providing Britain’s favourite food. Short sighted and misguided government policy on work related immigration has been a knife in heart to the British Curry Industry!”

As Parvez Ahmed, Restaurant owner and director of North West London Chamber of Commerce points out, “The restaurateur normally lives in the same area as his restaurant and is often involved with local activities, helping the community. When they are accused of employing illegal labour, despite often being totally innocent, they feel so embarrassed that they cannot face their local community. Also their children suffer as they go to local schools and they are hearing the same blame game.”

The demonisation of curry restaurant owners through these immigration raids is doing nothing to encourage the younger, British-born generation to step in and take over their elders business as they know the risks and hard work behind every restaurant.

The Government’s tax policies are another burden. The 20% VAT rate is encouraging customers to shift their spending towards ready-made meals in supermarkets where chilled curries are exempt from VAT. A reduction in the VAT rate to 5% on restaurant meals would give a big boost to the industry and help level the playing field with the supermarkets. Competition from supermarkets is adding to problems caused by the serious staffing crisis in the sector as there is strong evidence to show that the major retailers are increasing their share of the market, despite the fact that they are offer lower quality, and smaller portions and are machine rather than hand-made.

Restaurants and takeaways are losing out on so many levels, from labour and tax to tough competition from supermarkets. More and more of them will close if nothing is done to help them. Spice Business urges all restaurant owners to write to their local MP, if necessary including this article, highlighting the problems that they face. If enough write in then maybe the politicians will start to listen.

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