Britain's curry chefs spice up Brexit immigration debate

Story highlights

  • Curry house owners "can't find chefs" because of immigration laws
  • Four to five curry houses are closing each week, industry body says

London (CNN)Joke all you like about Britain's bland cuisine, but there are few countries in the world that love a spicy curry as much.

But the chicken korma and rogan josh that have become British staples are now under serious threat, if some of the country's curry chefs are to be believed -- and in their eyes, it's the European Union's fault.
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    On June 23, Britons will vote in a referendum on whether to stay in the EU or leave the bloc.
    Many of the country's curry house owners and chefs want Britain to leave the EU -- a so-called "Brexit" -- saying current immigration laws make it impossible for them to hire the skilled workers they need to keep their kitchens cooking. The situation is so dire that four or five of Britain's 12,000 curry houses are closing their doors every week, says Oli Khan, vice president of the Bangladeshi Caterers Association.
    As chefs reach retirement age, there's simply no one around skilled enough to replace them.
    The support for Brexit from chefs and curry house owners, predominantly from Bangladesh, has come as a surprise voice in the debate, as the Leave campaign is widely perceived as anti-immigration.
    Their argument centers around "freedom of movement," one of the pillars of the European Union -- meaning that citizens from across the community can essentially turn up in the country of their choice and try their luck at finding a job.
    "It's not that we think Europeans shouldn't have a chance in Britain, it's just that we feel the country should choose who it needs, what kind of skills they need, so that industries like ours are not short handed," Khan told CNN.
    Freedom of movement has put pressure on Britain's migrant intake from outside the EU, prompting the government to almost double the minimum salary required for non-EU immigrants, from £18,700 ($26,610) to £35,000 ($50,000).
    "This just doesn't suit the industry. The average salary for a chef in the country is £25,000, so why should we have to pay a junior chef £35,000 to make curry? It's just not affordable," Khan said.
    "Most South Asians born to immigrants in Britain are highly educated, so they take on other professions, like accounting, which come with better salaries," he explained.
    That social mobility has left those in the 200-year-old industry scratching their heads to work out where the next generation of curry chefs will come from.

    Immigration laws 'discriminatory'

    On Brick Lane, the heartland of London's curry scene, restaurants are packed to the brim on any given night of the week. In the Shaad restaurant, it's all hands on deck during a rush, as dozens break their Ramadan fast with a traditional Bangladeshi curry.
    "I'm basically doing two people's jobs at once to keep up," head chef Mohammad Anam Hussain tells CNN, speaking Bengali through a translator.
    "We need more staff, but it's difficult to find the right people already here in Britain.
    "And it's difficult to keep the quality of the food and service up when we're so stretched," he says. "We really need more skilled workers."
    The restaurant has three chefs and two kitchen hands, but it's still not enough. It has hired Eastern European and Spanish staff in the past, but Hussain says they never seem to work out.
    "There was a language barrier, and they didn't really like it," Hussain says. "They usually last around four weeks and find another job."
    Diners choose from a long list of curries on London's Brick Lane.
    Hussain complains that he hasn't understood much of the campaigning around the referendum, adding that it seems like a debate among the country's elite, with few immigrant voices in the mix.
    "We are a multicultural society, so I don't think it's fair that white people are given priority for immigration," he said.
    The curry chefs have added a little spice to the debate, which many Britons say has been dull and confusing.
    Polls show that with less than two weeks to go until the referendum there are a significant number of voters still undecided -- so many that they as a group could determine an outcome.
    An organization called Operation Black Vote has welcomed the curry chefs' decision to add their voice to the debate, saying discussions on race and immigration prior to that have been "toxic" and have "demonized" ethnic minorities.
    "I think it's great they're getting involved because the debate around immigration has been so negative," Operation Black Vote Director Simon Woolley told CNN.
    "What these chefs are saying is that 'We're British, we have a role and a voice in this, and we have something positive to offer.' So it's a very welcome voice among all the noise and toxicity."
    In 2015, net immigration to Britain was 330,000. Per capita, this is not an unusual figure for an economy as strong as Britain's, but it is the second-highest number on record and has fanned the flames of anti-immigration sentiment.

    'Naughty' Brexit

    But there are plenty of non-EU immigrants who think Britain is better off in the EU.
    Around the corner from Brick Lane is Whitechapel Market, where Asian, Middle Eastern and African immigrants tout everything from shoes and clothes, to exotic fruits and vegetables to cut-price toiletries.
    Oli Khan says immigration laws mean it costs too much to bring in curry chefs from Bangladesh.
    Many here say being part of the EU is good for the economy, and that leaving would require a costly and time-consuming renegotiation of trade.
    "I think that the main risk as a businessman is the risk of [losing] free trade with Europe, which is beneficial to business people and their people as well," said Ahfaz Miah, who has owned a jewelry shop at the market for 21 years.
    Aisha Jama, a Sudanese immigrant shopping for headscarves, said she wanted to stay in the Union because of its high human rights standards.
    "I think it's a bit naughty to say we want to do our own thing and to hell with the rest of Europe," she said.