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Chinese catering industry retains ‘skilled chefs’

After a struggle this summer, the Chinese catering industry finally persuaded the United Kingdom Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to retain the position of “skilled chef" on the recommended Shortage Occupation List (SOL) under Tier 2 of the Points Based System. Since then, the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) has accepted the MAC recommendation and skilled chefs will remain on the list – for now.

But there has been low use of the SOL for recruitment thus far among Chinese catering employers – just 30 out of an estimated 17000 UK Chinese restaurants and takeaway shops applied for immigration work permits under the SOL last year. The MAC report notes that very few employers have thus far registered under Tier 2 of the Points Based System (PBS) and that the Chinese catering industry has not resolved its worker shortages through this

Next autumn the position of skilled chefs on the SOL will again be examined. Despite the view that omission from the SOL, alongside other workers unable to qualify under Tier2, may lead to employers hiring undocumented workers, the MAC insists that this cannot be a reason for retaining skilled chefs on the SOL. On the contrary, this reflects the need to continue immigration enforcement to ensure that the employment of undocumented workers
remains in check.

The new SOL comes into force on 14 December 2009. This means that a relatively easy route remains in place for the Chinese catering industry to recruit new chefs, removing some of the more exacting requirements under Tier 2 of the PBS. The Chinese Immigration Concern Committee (CICC) has welcomed the MAC’s continued inclusion of this route. The criteria for applicants have been tightened since 2008:

  1. The minimum hourly wage is set at £8.45 per hour (increased from £8.10) and that the wage is the net income after accommodation costs;
  2. The applicant must have at least three years relevant work experience;
  3. The applicant must meet the English language requirement set under the PBS Tier 2.

The CICC believes that the UK Chinese catering industry should make full use of the SOL to address staff shortages. Mr Yip Fai Liu, chairman of CICC said: “30 out of 17000 Chinese restaurants makes an application through the SOL is less than 1% of the total”. Mr Liu said that if on the one hand, there is a claim of staff shortages and on the other there is no active use of the SOL, it is difficult to justify further inclusion of skilled chefs on the list and the industry will continue to live under the threat of immigration enforcement and fines.

In October 2007, the immigration authorities launched high-profile arrests of undocumented workers in London Chinatown. A total of 49 people were arrested, and a lingering fear today remains with many Chinese restaurants. Mr Liu said that CICC was established after that event and subsequently researched the shortage of chefs in the Chinese catering industry.

At the press conference, Mr Liu provided a set of figures, from March 2008 to September 2009, from the UKBA website. There were 633 cases of illegal employment of undocumented workers involving penalties, with a total of 1260 undocumented workers arrested and fines totalling over 6 million GBP. 414 of those cases occurred in the restaurant industry, of which 105 cases involved Chinese catering. This constituted 16 percent of the total. With fines of 1.2 million GBP and a total of 247 undocumented workers arrested, these figures reach up to 20 percent of the total.

"Figures show that the Chinese catering industry is still subject to the threat of immigration enforcement and fines" said Mr Liu. According to an announcement in February 2008, the maximum fine of 5,000 GBP per undocumented workers will increase to 10,000 GBP and if the employer knowingly hires undocumented workers, the employer can be prosecuted for a criminal offence.

Although the MAC retained skilled chefs on the SOL, its report made veiled criticisms. It noted that only a small proportion of businesses had registered applications. It mentioned that they had heard about a large body of undocumented workers and that the problem was particularly pronounced in the Chinese catering industry. Mr Liu said that if these problems remain, there would be no further evidence remaining in favour of SOL inclusion and the
Chinese catering industry would lose an important resource.

The MAC raised a further condition of continued inclusion, that of local training of chefs (“upskilling the local workforce”). At present, such training lacks adequate funding and the industry does not have a consensus about it. Jabez Lam, co-ordinator for CICC said that “the MAC knows that training cannot happen overnight". Denis Wong, managing director of Chinese Catering Solutions (CCS) said that his company would take a long-term view to
resolving the skilled chefs shortage problem. He said up to now, local Chinese catering training had been for leisure purposes and had not met professional standards. CCS aimed to develop vocational courses suitable for the Chinese catering industry and had been conducting pilot training in order to adapt the existing course material to both meet the UK

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) requirement and the future industry requirement.

Denis Wong was open about CCS as a commercial company, saying that the UK Chinese catering industry had arrived at a historic turning point. He asked: "Is the Chinese catering industry’s future long-term or short-term? Is it one of working together, or of working apart?

Is it to undergo active or passive development? Is it to go through deep change or suffer a slow death? Colleagues in the industry and members of the Chinese community must choose." CCS Board member, Mr Jacky Kong, proposed that the government legalizes undocumented workers to resolve short-term shortage problems. The training of local chefs is long term and he did not think that legalisation of undocumented workers conflicts with

November 2009


Republished from Migrant Rights Network newsletter. Abridged and translated from an article by Wen Zhen for the EU Chinese Journal, 20th