Owners of Britain’s curry houses say they are being unfairly targeted by the Home Office, which has launched a series of immigration raids on restaurants across the country. About 100,000 people are employed in the sector, which had already been facing problems because of a shortage of skilled chefs and a reluctance on the part of a younger generation to join family firms.
Now the industry’s largest trade body has written to immigration minister Brandon Lewis to discuss the impact of tough new immigration laws and what restaurant owners say is an increase in immigration raids.
One high-profile recent raid resulted in the temporary closure last month of acclaimed east London restaurant Tayyabs, and six arrests. Customers arriving at the Whitechapel institution known for its long queues found an “illegal working closure notice”, stating that paid and voluntary work of any kind was prohibited at the premises.
Immigration officers visited Tayyabs on 25 August, “acting on intelligence”, according to the Home Office. They arrested six Pakistani nationals, five of whom were detained ahead of removal from the UK, while a sixth was required to report regularly to immigration authorities.
The notice was served, the Home Office says, because of outstanding civil penalty fines amounting to £95,000, the high proportion of offenders found, and previous offences. A civil penalty referral notice, carrying a fine of up to £180,000, was also served.
Other raids have resulted in arrests and heavy fines this year on restaurants as far apart as Kent and North Yorkshire, and the permanent closure recently of one in Twickenham.
Oli Khan, the celebrity chef and secretary general of the Bangladesh Caterers Association (BCA), said: “We have [faced] a lot of hurdles, not least uncertainty over what Brexit may mean, and now all of a sudden there is more pressure. In the past year, it was quite quiet but now [the raids] have started again and it is getting tough for a lot of restaurants. This is a multibillion-pound industry so we are hoping that the government can help us, at least in the short term. They are spending more money to get rid of people than could be earned for the taxpayer if people were allowed to get their affairs in order. People could be given short-term stays, for example, rather than money being spent to send them away.”
The BCA said it was writing again to Lewis after receiving no response to its letter of 21 August, in which it said it had played a “pinnacle role in evolving British culinary taste and ensured that curry is recognised as staple”.
“We always maintain a very good relationship with the British government,” it added.
Measures introduced to “significantly reduce” non-EU migration raised fresh fears for curry houses. From April last year, restaurants that want to employ a chef from outside the EU have to pay a minimum salary of £35,000 or £29,750 with accommodation and food – for employees to get visas.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Using illegal labour is not victimless. It cheats the taxpayer, undercuts honest businesses and cheats legitimate jobseekers of employment opportunities. We are happy to work with businesses to ensure the right pre-employment checks are carried out, but we take robust action against employers who deliberately flout the rules.
“We continue to welcome the very top chefs, and such skilled chefs are on the shortage occupation list. But we also want to nurture more home-grown talent, so the restaurant sector must offer training to attract and recruit resident workers.”