British curry houses are closing at a rate of two a week. Blame immigration policy

A chef cooks curry on London's Brick Lane. Image: Getty.

The smell of freshly baked naan, exotic spices and caramelised onion hit your nostrils as you walk through London’s vibrant Brick Lane. It is a familiar aroma throughout the country and not only one that many of us enjoy but also one that has become synonymous with British culture.

Our love affair with the curry started in the 1950s and the £3.6bn industry has grown exponentially in the last six decades, cementing itself into a defining feature of our national identity. Curry houses have become a bastion of multiculturalism and an example of globalisation at its best. They represent how fantastic immigration can be and the impact foreign cultures can have on our lives. Unfortunately, however, the industry is in serious jeopardy and unless steps are taken to save it, we might have to say goodbye to our beloved Indian restaurants.

Experts suggest curry houses are closing down at a rate of two a week, and employment minister Priti Patel warned this figure could easily rise to four a week in the near distant future. This decline isn’t because of a lack of demand or popularity. The problem the industry faces is that a large portion of the South Asian immigrants who set up these restaurants in the 60s and 70s are starting to retire, and there are no obvious replacements in the waiting.

Attitudes have changed among second and third generation British South Asians. When my grandfather came to Britain in the late 1950s, he worked in a restaurant and was adamant that his children and grandchildren go to university and seek more “academic” work. The current generation of British-Asians are experiencing the social mobility that their parents worked hard to provide. They don’t want to be chefs or work in the restaurants their predecessors did. The long hours and financial considerations aside, culturally, it is seen as taking a step backwards.

This means that as one generation bows out of the workforce, the next does not look to carry on the family business. With a lack of home-grown managers and skilled chefs, the obvious answer to the shortages is to turn abroad. But changes in immigration policy have made it increasingly difficult to do so.

The government is aware of the problem and has placed chefs on the “shortage occupation list”. But current requirements dictate that non-EU immigrants must earn a minimum of £29,570 to get a work visa, which is significantly higher than the average salary paid to those working in a curry house.

Enam Ali, the founder of the British Curry Awards, has urged the government to introduce a one-year visa scheme to save the country’s curry houses. Although this may work as a short-term fix, the structural problem of simply not having skilled chefs to keep the industry going over the next decade or so is a pressing concern.

An industry declining has obvious economic costs. But it's not only jobs at risk - we are also losing a significant part of our national identity. Former foreign secretary Robin Cook described chicken tikka masala as “a true British national dish”. The 12,000 curry houses in the UK are a much-needed symbokl of a willingness to accept other cultures into our ever changing identity.

When I last stepped into my local curry house, the owner told me that he feels he is the “pillar of the community”. As he put it, his curry house “brings people together over poppadums and mango chutney”. In the fast-paced world we live in, the local curry house is more often than not where families actually sit down together to converse and have a meal.

The plight of the curry houses is a reminder that immigration creates new industries, shapes our culture and offers us skills when we need them most. It may be fashionable to focus on the negatives of immigration, but if we are to save our curry industry, we must reassess our policies. 

This article previously appeared on our sister site, The Staggers.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.