Are Hastings and Rother facing a curry crisis?
It is an industry which contributes Â£1.5bn a year to the UK economy and provides the nation with one of its favourite dishes.
But Britain’s curry houses are under threat as tightened immigration laws have triggered a recruitment crisis.
Indian cuisine has become an important part of British culture.
The industry is worth £4.5bn with around 12,000 restaurants in operation.
On average, 100,000 employees serve around 2.5 million customers every week.
However, changes to UK immigration law have meant it is much more difficult for restaurant owners to recruit trained chefs from abroad.
The British Bangladeshi Curry Industry estimates that nationally at least two restaurant close every week due to difficulties in recruiting and retaining chefs.
Representatives from 45 restaurants in Rother, including Bexhill, Battle, Rye and Heathfield, have joined forces in a bid to persuade the government to reconsider.
Bexhill and Battle MP Huw Merriman attended a special meeting of local restaurant owners at Centre Stage Hall in Bexhill last month to discuss the critical issue of chef recruitment that is affecting the British Bangladeshi Curry Industry.
During the meeting, restaurant owners explained to Mr Merriman that Indian restaurants were initially set up in the early 1970s.
The original owners and chefs that started the businesses are ready to retire but the younger generations want to pursue different careers.
It has proved very difficult for the restaurant owners to find British or European nationals who want to train and work in this industry and they have therefore had to recruit chefs from outside the Europe who already work in Asian cuisine
However, changes to the Tier 2 visa requirements for skilled workers from outside the EEA require a minimum pay of £29,570 and stipulate that the restaurant cannot provide a takeaway service.
These amendments have forced some restaurants to close because they cannot recruit local staff and the new minimum salary to grant a visa to a chef from abroad is at least £5,000 more than a standard chef wage.
Most Indian restaurants are family-owned businesses that require at least two chefs and they simply cannot afford to pay nearly £30,000 per chef.
The meeting was jointly chaired by Abdul Mukith, owner of Bengal Brasserie in Bexhill, and Shamim Ahmed, who is the owner of Angra, based at Little Common.
Other guests offering their support at the meeting included Bexhill mayor Maurice Watson, Rother District Council chairman Jimmy Carroll and Bexhill Central Ward councillor Abul Azad – who also owns the Shiplu Tandoori.
Also present were Mr MA Karim from Rye’s Mahdi Spice, Nurul Amin, former councillor Ali Hyder, Abu Ahmed, Mostak Khan and Akmol Ali.
A petition has been handed over to Huw Merriman, who will forward it on to the Home Office, urging the government to re-examine its current policy, which has affected every Indian restaurant in the UK.
Mr Merriman said: “Local restaurant owners have made their case to me very well.
“I sympathise with these family-run businesses as they have tried very hard to recruit local people to work in their restaurants but the low level of local unemployment and the lack of enthusiasm for working in their sector has caused them real difficulties.
“I will be writing to the immigration minister to raise this issue with him and to see if there is anything that can be done to help an industry which makes a huge contribution to the UK economy and gastronomy.”
Meanwhile, Hastings and Rye MP Amber Rudd has also thrown her weight behind the Indian restaurateurs in her constituency.
Earlier in the year, Ms Rudd attended the Networking Meeting of local curry house owners at the Tandoori Ghor in St Leonards.
She said: “I was privileged to be asked to speak at the Networking Meeting of local Indian restaurant owners to discuss their concerns regarding local recruitment.
“This is part of a nationwide issue and I am looking into how I can support this valuable local industry which, for the UK as a whole, is worth around £4.5bn and contributes over £1.5bn to the economy each year.
“It was great to get the opportunity to meet such hard working local business owners, discuss their concerns and the future of their businesses, and to sample their delicious curries.”
Speaking after the event, Mr Karim from the Mahdi Spice restaurant in Rye said “It was a pleasure for us to host Amber Rudd at our Networking Meeting and we are grateful for her support in this crucial issue facing our industry.
“We very much look forward to working with her over the coming months to find a workable solution.
“We would also ask the public to support us by signing our online petition.”
The petition can be found on the YouGov website: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/113515.
* A prominent businessman is calling on Indian restaurants in other parts of Sussex to follow the lead of the restaurateurs in Hastings and Rother.
Abul Azad has been at the helm of one of Bexhill’s most recognisable Indian restaurants – the Shiplu Tandoori in London Road – for 26 years.
He is one of the leading local voices in calling for a change in the law to help tackle Britain’s curry crisis.
And Mr Azad is calling on restaurateurs from other nearby towns, including Eastbourne, to join the fight.
He told the Observer: “All restaurants should come forward to pressure the government to help the industry because we do not want to lose it.
“I say come forward everyone and put a petition forward like we did.”
The changes to the visa requirements were introduced a few years ago, but its impact is being keenly felt by the industry.
Mr Azad says the immigration rules are particularly taking their toll on smaller restaurants.
While the Shiplu is well-staffed with family members, smaller restaurants don’t have the same support.
Mr Azad said: “We are OK because we have got a great big family.
“But I’m talking about very small businesses who are in trouble.
“If someone has a business outside the bigger cities like London or Birmingham, they are the ones who have problems.”
He added: “One or two restaurants are closing down each week, which is causing problems with unemployment, and losing money going to the government.
“And they should do something about it.
“We need some help.”