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UK's Indian hoteliers take to streets

This crisis facing the 3.5-billion-pound Indian restaurant industry is scheduled to hit the streets of London on Sunday.
PTI | By Prasun Sonwalkar, London
UPDATED ON APR 21, 2008 02:53 AM IST

Can a Polish cook tarka dal to the right level of spice? Or, is a Bulgarian migrant in London culturally sensitive enough to rustle up chicken tikka masala widely considered Britains national dish?

No, say owners of Indian restaurants who are currently struggling to deliver orders due to severe staff shortage. New immigration rules prevent the owners from recruiting chefs from the Indian sub-continent, and many owners and consumers are facing an acute problem.

This crisis facing the 3.5-billion-pound Indian restaurant industry is scheduled to hit the streets of London on Sunday as thousands of chefs, owners and consumers stage a three-hour protest against restrictive immigration rules.

The protest has been joined by Chinese and Turkish restaurant industries, which are also facing similar staff shortage problems. The protest has been organised by the newly formed Ethnic Catering Alliance, representing over 40,000 restaurants.

Connoisseurs of Indian cuisine believe that cooking food is a cultural process that needs the right material and cultural inputs. They believe that without years of experience and sensitivity, it cannot be performed by people outside the Indian cultural zone.

But Indian restaurant owners here have been encouraged to employ Polish, Bulgarian or other migrants from the expanded European Union who do not need permits to work in Britain.

Leaders of these large migrant communities claim they can cook Indian dishes equally well, but the owners disagree, who insist that only chefs from the Indian sub-continent can do the job well.

The 'Ethnic Catering Alliance' believes that nearly 30 per cent of its restaurants are under threat because of new rules requiring non-European Union origin staff to meet strict criteria, including a demonstrable ability to speak English.

In March, Indian restaurant owners staged a protest against the new immigration rules outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

Alex Salmond, the First Minister, described the issue as "really serious". Foysol Choudhury, general secretary of the 'Bangladesh Samity Association' in Edinburgh, said, "Our chefs don't need to speak English. Their curry talks. The Indian restaurant industry contributes 3.2 billion pounds to the British economy. What is the British government doing to save this industry?"

Asked about consequences if action were not taken to tackle the issue, he said bluntly: "Half of the restaurants will close and we'll lose the food quality. Eventually this industry will die."

Prime Minister Gordon Brown wants that people within the country should be trained to take up jobs in the Indian restaurants. "We are doing far more to train than ever before. We know there are people who, if trained, could make a contribution to the industry," he said.

Industry estimates say that at least 50,000 people are employed in Indian restaurants, with the majority of restaurants in
the sector being Bangladeshi-owned.

The Immigration Advisory Service (IAS) says that 27,500 extra workers are required to keep the thousands of Indian restaurants in the UK working.

After the new rules were implemented earlier this year, immigration and police officers have raided several Indian restaurants, sometimes during peak business hours in the evening, and arrested people working illegally.

Calling for a halt to the raids, Keith Vaz, Goa-origin chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said, "There is little evidence to suggest that these raids have produced any significant evidence of illegality.

"All they seek to do is cause mayhem in restaurants costing the owners hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds. These are not just fishing expeditions these are targeted annihilations."

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