Home Secretary Priti Patel has today announced new plans for U.K. immigration law, which would have major ramifications on the restaurant industry, a sector which is fundamentally dependent on a category of worker the government categorises as “low-skilled.” Even before the interrogation of that subjective definition, it is important to place this move in the context of the Conservative Party’s pledge to “end free movement of people” from the European Union post-Brexit and to lower net immigration more generally. The policy — presented as a meritocratic “points-based” programme — is expressly designed to meet the administration’s target. It has been greeted with widespread concern from restaurant owners in London, with the head of trade body UK Hospitality calling the proposals “disastrous.”
The proposed change to the law
Patel says the government wants to “encourage people with the right talent” and “reduce the levels of people coming to the U.K. with low skills”.
A new threshold for visa applications will be conditioned on the government’s own definition of “skills” wherein applicants will score points for speaking English as well as having secured an offer offer of a “skilled job” with an “approved sponsor.” Immigrants would no longer be able to arrive in the country with no English language skills and, for example, seek employment once here.
More points would be awarded for qualifications, such as a PhD, while a change in the salary band which defines skilled work is among the moves likely to strike a blow to the restaurant industry. It would be lowered from from £30,000 to £25,600.
The government has also said that exceptions would be made, where such thresholds would not need to be met, for sectors with known shortages. While nursing, civil engineering, psychology, and classical ballet dancing qualify under its definition of “specific shortage occupations” no role in the hospitality industry currently does.
In addition to the much-publicised end to free movement from the EU, the government would also end the automatic rights of workers, which are not conditioned on any skills or salary level, from European Economic Area countries at the end of the the Brexit transition period on the 31 December 2020.
The impact, according the body which represents the hospitality industry
UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said: “Ruling out a temporary, low-skilled route for migration in just 10 months’ time will be disastrous for the hospitality sector and the British people. Business must be given time to adapt.
“These proposals will cut off future growth and expansion and deter investment in Britain’s high streets. It will lead to reduced levels of service for customers and business closures. Hospitality is already facing an acute labour shortage, despite investing significantly in skills, training and increasing apprenticeships for the domestic workforce. We are facing record low levels of unemployment, a dip in young people entering the labour market and have the highest vacancy levels of any sector.”
One concern from the industry is that the proposed strategy to mitigate the forthcoming shortage — namely, government training programmes for British workers — is someway behind that of the pre-emptive initiatives the sector has been forced to develop itself.
Nichols added that the announcement failed “to recognise that hospitality is at the heart of every community in the U.K.” “These proposals fail to deliver on the Government’s own objective of providing an immigration system which works for the U.K.’s economy and its people.”
What those in the industry say themselves
Corbin and King co-founder Jeremy King and managing director, Zuleka Fennell:
Corbin and King co-founder Jeremy King told Eater that “so much will depend on whether Tronc will be allowed to be factored into wage calculations before we finalise our strategy.” There, King is referring to the method of pooling service charges, which are widely used by restaurants to supplement base salaries or hourly rates — the reality being that staff members are often remunerated in excess of advertised salaries. King’s concern is whether the government will factor tronc additions into employees’ salaries, and thus whether certain jobs, which technically fall short of the £25,600 salary actually surpass that figure in practice.
Corbin and King managing director Fennell said in a statement: “We were shocked and saddened by the news which seems particularly short sighted after Brexit and causes yet another unnecessary obstacle to engaging and harnessing the huge talent we have always enjoyed from Europe and which has helped us to shape and grow our businesses alongside our U.K. workforce.”
Fennell added what has become a commonly held grievance among those in the industry: a characterisation of work in hospitality as limited to casual, low-skilled, and often transitory employment, at odds with the reputation of the profession across European nations, the United States, and Australia.
“Worse still, we feel that the immigration restrictions continue to endorse the widely held misconception about the hospitality industry (the U.K.’s third largest employer) being low skilled, poorly paid and not capable of attracting the “brightest and best” something which Corbin and King has always challenged and refuted.”
Asma Khan, founder and head chef Darjeeling Express:
Khan, who posted to Instagram this lunchtime, calling the move shameful, told Eater: “I am inviting Boris [Johnson] to come serve in my restaurant and then we can have a discussion on whether low skills is a fair threshold for hospitality.
“The build up to Brexit and the toxic anti European rhetoric in parts of the media clearly had put a lot of potential hospitality applicants from the EU coming to the U.K. — the new announcement is the nail in the coffin. With no preparatory investment in skill training in hospitality for a post-Brexit day when we would lose the European staff which had been the lifeline for the industry till now... where will we find new (barely!) skilled British candidates to work in hospitality.”
Shamil Thakrar, co-founder, Dishoom:
Thakrar, not alone in the restaurant industry, has been forthright in his opposition to Brexit since 2016. He told Eater: “Since the referendum, we’ve been committed to ensuring every single member of our team and their families feel supported through Brexit. With the help of lawyers and in-restaurant ‘Brexperts’, we’ve helped over 700 of our EU team members and their families obtain settled status.”
While others have been somewhat surprised, if not blindsided by the severity of the announcement and will develop strategies to mitigate the impact in the coming weeks, Thakrar and Dishoom have an oven-ready three-point plan.
“Preparation, of course, only helps to a point,” he said. “In light of today’s announcement, we’ve got to be even more committed to making Dishoom an absolutely first-class place to work.
“Our approach to attracting and retaining talent is three-fold, encompassing financial, physical and mental wellbeing. This encompasses everything from offering industry-leading pay, to hosting an annual Dishoom Premier League at Lord’s, as well as regular football, netball and yoga, to training all 120 of our managers in mental health first aid and providing access to 24/7 confidential mental wellbeing advice. Now more than ever, we have a duty to prove that the hospitality industry can provide jobs that become long-lasting careers for highly-skilled people,” he added, echoing that of others about the urgency now of overcoming the negative perception of the industry’s professional status.
Thakrar said Dishoom had also sought to tap into “oft-overlooked talent pools” and have working closely with schools to engage school leavers with the industry for the past 12 months. “I think that working with ex-offenders, those who have experienced homelessness, and other often marginalised or overlooked talent pools, will become an even greater focus for Dishoom and the industry as a whole,” he said.
There remain 11 months — during which time the future relationship negotiations with the EU will be scrutinised and pressure will scarcely ease on the government to rethink its post-Brexit policies — before these proposals would be implemented. Even then, its realisation will be contingent on the ability of the Home Office to prosecute it effectively. But right now, the message from the restaurant industry is clear: this is grave news.