After Brexit, there was a shortage of waiters in London restaurants | Daily News Byte


LONDON – Jordan Frieda knew he was struggling to find waiters and kitchen workers for his three Italian restaurants. But it wasn’t until he hired a recruiter to try to lure people from other restaurants that the depth of the crisis became apparent. His agent typically contacted 100 or more people a day, he recalled, with fewer than four responding and often agreeing to come for only one trial shift.

“It’s worse than Covid, worse than energy costs,” said Mr Frieda, a well-connected actor-turned-restaurateur who briefly worked under celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. β€œIt is the most traumatic event of my career in restaurants. It has been an absolutely devastating, transformative event.”

Mr. Frida is not alone. Restaurants across London are so short of staff that they have had to reduce operating hours, close some days of the week and in extreme cases close their doors altogether. While the city’s once-thriving dining scene has also suffered from the coronavirus pandemic and rising energy prices, the labor shortage is almost entirely the result of Brexit – a stark example of how Britain’s departure from the European Union is shaping its economy.

London restaurants recruited many waiters, chefs and bartenders from Italy, Spain and Greece. That talent pool has dried up since Britain ended free movement of labor from the European Union. An estimated 11 percent of jobs in Britain’s hospitality industry are vacant, according to a recent industry survey, compared with 4 percent for the wider economy.

With multiple jobs unfulfilled, Mr. Frieda initially reduced the days his restaurant was open to five out of seven. He eliminated double shifts worked by his chefs. But with labor costs rising 10 percent, he’s had to raise his prices, and he’s worried about his restaurant’s long-term future.

There is also human loss. For many young people from Mediterranean countries, waiting tables in London was a rite of passage for a few years. “Brexit has been a disaster, economically, culturally, personally and in every other way,” Mr Frieda said.

Regrets over Brexit have grown in recent months, as the country plunges into a serious economic crisis. Polls show that a clear majority of Britons now believe the Leave vote was a mistake. A new report by the British Chambers of Commerce has revealed that more than half of its members are having difficulty doing business across the English Channel. However, at a time of multiple upheavals, the negative impact of Brexit may be difficult to quantify.

Some of Britain’s economic woes, such as stagnant productivity, predated its decision to leave the bloc. Others, like inflation, affect many countries. Headline immigration figures can paint a misleading picture: net migration to Britain hit a record 504,000 in the 12 months ending last June, swelled by refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan as well as British overseas passport holders from Hong Kong.

Yet when it comes to EU citizens, there was a net outflow of 51,000 over the same period – and those people tend to be restaurant staff.

By design, Britain’s post-Brexit immigration policy has shifted the nature and origin of new arrivals, moving away from low-skilled migration from European countries to high-skilled people from South Asia and Africa.

“Labour shortages are a symptom of the new system,” said Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London. By opening jobs in industries such as hospitality to Britons, he said, the government’s aim was to generate “higher productivity, wages and more training for UK resident workers”.

But the risk, he said, is that companies suffering from worker shortages will simply scale back their output and employment. According to a recent survey by UKHospitality and the British Beer and Pub Association, around 40 per cent of restaurants have reduced their hours, while more than a third of restaurants, pubs and hotels could go bankrupt or even close as early as 2023.

The Christmas holiday was considered a year-end redemption for bars and restaurants. But now it risks being worsened by the cost-of-living crisis, which is discouraging people from eating out, and the double whammy of the railway strike, which has triggered an avalanche of holiday-party booking cancellations.

Andy Tighe, director of strategy and policy at the British Beer and Pub Association, said: “The end of the year is a very difficult point for restaurants.” “The train strike is the icing on the cake.”

Industry members are lobbying the Conservative government to grant more two-year visas for young people from the European Union to come to Britain to work in restaurants. They are also appealing to make the process less costly and bureaucratic. Restaurant workers, they argue, are productive, usually not a burden on the National Health Service and usually return home after a few years.

“They’re usually young and they spend their money in the country,” said Nick Jones, founder of Soho House, a chain of private members’ clubs that started in London and is expanding. around the world. “I really think there are people who come in because they’re good at certain things.”

Mr Jones said the government’s refusal to tackle the problem was putting the future of one of Britain’s fastest growing industries at risk. “It will stop people from investing in restaurants and opening restaurants,” he said.

The trouble is that immigration has, if anything, become an even more fraught issue in the past few months, after a surge in asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is under pressure from the right wing of his party to reduce, not increase, numbers.

Britain is, in any case, a less attractive destination for its European neighbours. Some went home after the Brexit vote; Others left during the epidemic and never returned.

Ruth Rogers, who owned the famous Italian restaurant River Cafe in Hammersmith, west London, recruited waiters from Italy during summer trips there.

“Normally, when I’m in Italy and I meet a really good waiter, I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you come to London?'” she said. β€œI said that to someone in Venice last year and he said: ‘I can’t. You don’t want us.”

While Ms Rogers has been able to keep the River Cafe fully staffed, she said it had become more difficult after Brexit. She recently had to pay more than 10,000 pounds, or about $12,000, for a British visa to catch a highly regarded sommelier. And the River Cafe’s problems pale next to some other well-known London restaurants.

Celebrity chef Jason Atherton sent shockwaves through the industry last month when he told the London Evening Standard that he would have to close several of his restaurants next year if he could not fill 350 vacancies, or about a third of his staff. Mr. Atherton declined a request for an interview.

Mr Frieda’s restaurants β€” Trullo, in Islington; And Padella’s two outposts, in Borough Market and Shoreditch – are not lacking for customers. For its tagliarini with pappardelle with slow-cooked tomato sauce or eight-hour Dexter beef shin ragu, lines form outside Padella, which doesn’t accept reservations.

But with a shortage of recruits from the continent, Mr Frieda has been forced to look closer to home for workers. It’s a training challenge, he said, because young Britons aren’t immersed in the food and wine culture of Mediterranean countries.

“They’ve never seen anybody have a glass of wine, unless they’re downing it,” he said with a laugh. “They get there, but it’s a journey.”

For some restaurateurs, the labor shortage reflects a lack of imagination in their industry. They say restaurants could employ more women if they offered more flexible work hours. They can also recruit older people, for whom working in a restaurant can be an attractive post-retirement activity.

Jeremy King, one of London’s leading restaurateurs who until recently owned Wolseley, Fisher and Delaunay, said British restaurateurs also had to overcome a cultural bias in the country against jobs like waiting tables.

“For British people, there is an insult and a stigma to serving people,” said Mr. King, who was planning to return to business with a new restaurant in the spring. “I still blame restaurateurs for not believing in our staff, for showing that restaurateurs can be a career.”


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