Visa restrictions threaten a crisis for London’s restaurants.
By Rachel Karasik
If you do a Google search on ‘eat your way around the world in London’, dozens of articles come up explaining how you might taste food from every corner of the world without travelling outside the M25. No matter how obscure the region, or the dish, the chances are that you can find it somewhere in the capital. This electicism is what makes London’s food scene so vibrant and exciting: there is every manner of cuisine to try, not to mention the fusions and happy accidents that have resulted from the metropolitan mingling of culinary styles. And what makes all of this possible? A fleet of chefs, as diverse as the dishes themselves, who make and serve the food Londoners seek out and consume. Yet as a result of increasingly stringent visa laws, London’s kitchens are teetering on the edge of crisis.
There is already a major chef shortage across the UK. Restaurants are short-staffed; kitchen and front-of-house teams are overworked and underpaid, and most restaurants continue just about to break even if they are lucky. The government’s list of occupations facing shortages acknowledges the dearth of restaurant staff, but only those of the rank of sous chef or above, with a minimum pay threshold of £29,570 (after deductions for accommodation and meals) 9 in restaurants without takeaway service. The average pay of a sous chef in London hovers around £29,000, 10 with many making far below that, meaning that sponsorship is a realistic possibility only for the highest-ranking employees at the most financially successful restaurants. The £35,000 per year required to apply for indefinite leave to remain as a non-EU worker leaves the vast majority of chefs without a hope of qualifying.
The government suggests that these tough rules are intended to encourage the training and employment of British citizens (although it’s also no secret that the government wants to reduce immigration at any cost). In December 2015, George Osborne made a comment about curry chefs needing to be trained in the UK 11 to foster ‘home-grown talent’. While this ambition to develop local workers is admirable, it is less clear how it will happen. The £1.75 million failed ‘curry college’ programme, launched in 2012 to foster and train curry chefs across the UK, shut when fewer than a quarter of its places were filled. 12 It is not necessarily the case that ‘if you build it, they will come’. To remove experienced non-EU chefs before there is a willing crop of UK citizens to take their place – or even much sign that you know how to produce them – is counterproductive. The curry industry is expecting one-third of restaurants across the UK to close as a result of restaurateurs’ inability to hire and bring into the country the necessary talent. 13
But this issue is about more than finding people to fill jobs. London is a global centre for cuisine, with some of the world’s most exciting chefs, spaces and collaborations appearing around the city – from shipping container food markets to fine dining restaurants. Residents are hungry for the latest culinary trend; chefs are inspired to build on the diversity they find in the city and experiment. But working in kitchens is tough: as I write this, my hands are raw and chapped and my arms sprinkled with burn marks. I have just spent 50 hours of a Bank Holiday weekend on my feet in a freezing cold kitchen and I will be back tomorrow. To put up with the long hours, sore limbs, low wages and harsh conditions, you have to love what you are doing. Surely those willing to put up with these conditions to produce the food that London loves deserve to be given the chance to do so?
I am biased. I am an American, married to a Brit. My own visa sponsorship with a restaurant has fallen through in the past, and I have seen non-EU friends forced to leave the country when their employers couldn’t sponsor them. I have a friend who, despite having co-founded a cafe in what was formerly an empty shop-front, employing local residents and instantly garnering positive reviews, had to leave. To witness people putting their (literal) blood, sweat, and tears into a job in order to feed the city, only to be told that they are not worthy to stay, is heartbreaking. With every passing year, there seems to be an extra visa hurdle to jump through and I have seen the winnowing of my own friends and colleagues. Unless the government changes its position on visas for restaurant staff, the industry is heading for a crisis.