At the end of last year, Rishi Sunak gave a speech about his time waiting tables before going to university. Working at Kuti’s Brasserie in Southampton, he said, was the “best training” he had in preparing to be prime minister. Sunak cracked jokes about the balancing act that both waiters and holders of high political office need to master.
At the start of this year, however, the company that owns Kuti’s was placed into voluntary liquidation. Its owner lamented the “difficult times” for the restaurant.
In fact, today the £4.2bn industry as a whole is in labour crisis. In recent decades, the children and grandchildren of pioneering Bengali restaurateurs have opted not to join the family business, going instead into professional jobs supported by access to university. The steady stream of migrants looking to start out in the kitchen and build a successful restaurant has slowed to a trickle, too. In 2007, 12,000 Indian restaurants were open across the UK. Today there are only 8,500 – and more are closing every week, according to the industry.
“[The] number one point I think is Brexit,” says Bashir Ahmed, president of the British Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce. Before Brexit, he explains, European nationals provided much of the workforce to hospitality businesses. The UK’s restrictions on “unskilled” labour from outside the EU make it hard for all but the most skilled (or highest earners) to get a work visa. A chef might earn enough to meet the £25,600 salary threshold and make it through the lengthy process for a visa with the support of their employer. Given their far lower salaries, however, kitchen, cleaning and waiting staff have no chance. Ahmed says this “unworkable” point-based system has made it impossible to recruit and fill the vacancies opening up in restaurants.
Syed Aziz has worked in restaurants for his entire adult life. “When I first came, I was more or less like an alien here because everything was strange to me, from the weather to the language,” he recalls, a few days after the 50th anniversary of his arrival in the UK. Aziz was part of a wave of migration from Bangladesh in the 1970s, following a brutal struggle for independence from Pakistan. He started out as a commis waiter in his family’s business and was running it within a few years. Ten years after arriving in the UK, he launched his own restaurant in Newcastle.
Decades later and Aziz is still running restaurants in the north-east of England, including a “curry train” experience along the Tyne Valley. Bengalis like him would come to dominate the British curry scene, running 90 per cent of restaurants by 2012.
In the past, there have been calls to train up British-born workers to fill the labour and skills gap in the sector but, so far, the results have been disappointing. In 2011, a £1.75m scheme launched by then-communities secretary Eric Pickles to establish “curry colleges” ended in failure, as few students enrolled and the programme was quietly shuttered. There have also been industry-led attempts: the late Enam Ali – founder of the British Curry Awards – tried to set up his own curry academy in 2017.
“It’s time now that people stopped talking about celebrating the curry industry and started thinking about actually saving the curry industry,” says Rabina Khan, a former policy advisor on immigration. Khan points out that the sector is modernising and developing, but that it needs support to survive and thrive. She believes policymakers have failed to understand how the sector works, and how it enables the people working in the industry and their families to be upwardly mobile.
“Hospitality still has a perception problem in the UK population, I think in terms of a career versus a job,” says Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, which represents more than 700 companies. In Europe and many countries outside of the EU, hospitality careers are backed up by a range of hotel schools that turn out highly skilled workers. Meanwhile, Covid-19 disrupted the talent pipeline for the industry, she explains.
“This idea, that it’s either train up the UK staff or import foreign workers, to my mind, is a false dichotomy. You’ve got to do both,” Nicholls says. She believes the UK needs a labour strategy that looks at the workforce challenges across sectors, not just those experiencing acute shortages now. “At the moment, our immigration policy is insufficiently nuanced to reflect the needs of the labour market,” she says, adding that joined up policies to support people into the labour market must come alongside education and training, a supportive benefits system and immigration reforms.
Ahmed is also keen to focus on practical solutions, such as lowering the salary threshold for visas or reducing the standards on fluency in the English language in the points-based system to provide a lifeline to the industry. “At least 70 per cent of the UK’s curry houses are in danger of closing down due to the cost of living and labour shortages,” he says.
The end of the curry house would not just mean that the likes of Rishi Sunak would lack for a minimum-wage job to nostalgically invoke decades later; it would mean the end of a pathway for migrant families to aspire and succeed – and the loss of that business dynamism for the country.