Restaurant owners across the UK have cut lunch and dinner services and raised wages, citing a “calamitous” shortage of labour prompted by Brexit and the aftereffects of the pandemic.
Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jnr said on Wednesday that he had been forced to stop serving lunch and reduce the menu from 12 choices per course to a tasting menu and three other options at his Mayfair restaurant Le Gavroche.
Bibendum, another Michelin-starred London restaurant, said it would close on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, while Hawksmoor, which runs eight restaurants in London, Manchester and Edinburgh, has limited opening hours to only the busiest times.
Others in the industry, including MWEat, which owns the Indian restaurant Veeraswamy in London and casual dining chain Masala Zone, and Gaucho restaurants have increased wages for certain positions by 10 to 15 per cent. D&D restaurants, which runs 38 sites in London, Manchester and Leeds, said it was asking staff to work extra hours.
“It’s disheartening and gut-wrenching but we just can’t carry on like this. It’s an acute shortage of staff, not just chefs but front of house as well,” Roux said, adding that a lack of experienced chefs — a side effect of Brexit — was “absolutely calamitous” for restaurateurs.
The pressure to recruit has increased in the past two months as hospitality businesses across the UK have rushed to find staff to meet unexpectedly high reopening demand and to fill gaps left by workers who have returned to their home countries owing to Brexit and the pandemic.
S4Labour, the hospitality technology provider, said revenues across the sector since the lifting of restrictions in May were up by a third compared with the same period in May 2019 and that 29 per cent of hospitality staff had left the workforce since February last year.
Indeed, a recruitment firm said the number of job adverts for food preparation roles had increased 608 per cent since the government announced its road map for easing lockdowns in February and were now 16 per cent higher than in February 2020, before the pandemic.
The shortages prompted Tim Martin, chair of the pub group JD Wetherspoon and a prominent Brexiter, to suggest on Tuesday that the government adopt “some sort of preferential visa system for EU workers, justified by ‘proximity’”, an idea echoed by many other operators across the industry.
UKHospitality, the trade body, last week called on ministers to introduce “an Australian-style visa scheme” to allow non-native workers who do not meet the UK’s post-Brexit points-based system to be employed.
However, the government flatly rejected such a suggestion on Wednesday.
“We want employers to focus on training and investing in our domestic workforce, especially those needing to find new employment as a result of the impact of the measures necessary to tackle Covid-19, rather than relying on labour from abroad,” the Home Office said.
“[Pubs and restaurants] can’t always say the answer is to hire cheap foreign labour,” said one aide to Priti Patel, home secretary.
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Patel, who campaigned for Brexit in 2016 alongside Martin, has set up an immigration system that favours skilled workers and does not offer preferential treatment to EU nationals.
The new rules, which came into effect from December 31 last year, with the end of the post-Brexit transition period, bar employers from hiring outside the UK for any role not needing the equivalent of A-level qualifications. They also bar employers from bringing in foreign workers for most positions paid less than £25,600 a year.
Martin Williams, chief executive of Gaucho-owner M Restaurants, said: “When someone like Le Gavroche, which is an institution, closes for lunches you have a serious problem . . . Unless the government changes its attitudes to visas there is going to be a big issue but the onus is also on the hospitality industry to be a good employer.”