With Indian restaurants in crisis, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel said we would be able to employ more chefs from south Asia
• Oli Khan is the secretary general of the Bangladesh Caterers Association
ne of the many myths and mysteries of the 2016 referendum campaign is that people from the south-east Asian community backed a leave campaign that was so often linked to bigotry.
The truth is, they didn’t. A majority of voters of south-east Asian heritage supported remain – but more of us voted for Brexit than anyone expected. Not only was I one of them; I also bear some responsibility, as the head of an organisation that urged our 150,000 members and 12,000 restaurants to vote leave.
At the time, the Bangladesh Caterers Association was worried about an average of four restaurants closing a week, rising rents and soaring business rates. Both Priti Patel and Boris Johnson approached us to collaborate with and support the Save Our Curry Houses campaign set up by Vote Leave. They said if we were to support the leave campaign, they would ensure we were able to get more chefs from south Asia by relaxing immigration rules with lower salary thresholds to hire staff from outside the EU.
And we made the mistake of believing them.
We were – and still are – struggling to get chefs to Britain from south Asia as the rules state you have to pay a salary of £35,000 to offer a curry chef’s job to a south Asian: a sum that is simply unthinkable for a large number of smaller restaurants.
The Vote Leave supporters also claimed that if we voted to come out of the EU, we would not need to prioritise immigration from the EU any more – and it would actually mean more chances to get people from Commonwealth countries.
It was because of these promises that I supported the leave campaign. If enacted, they would have brought great benefit to our industry – but I now see that those promises were all lies. These false promises will not be kept, any more than dozens of others: from the extra £350m for the NHS and the securing the easiest trade deals in history.
The gap between the Brexit that was sold and the one being delivered increases by the day. When I talk to my membership, the one thing I hear again and again is people saying that if they were given another chance, they would vote to remain in the EU.
Indeed, Brexit is already harming the nation’s curry houses. Many of the estimated 10,000 EU citizens employed in our industry have quit their jobs amid continued uncertainty over their future. The treatment of these workers from other countries and the rise in xenophobia since the referendum should shame us all, particularly those of us from an immigrant background.
The Brexit being proposed will damage our businesses and make our communities poorer. Nor will leaving the EU provide any clarity or closure: the only guarantee is that successive governments will go back and forth to Brussels trying to make sense of something that makes no sense for Britain.
Worse still, it threatens to usher in an era of inward-looking nationalism, political turmoil and uncertainty that anyone from our background should fear. As a businessman, a Bengali and a proud Brit, I believe the only way forward now is to go back to the people and offer a public vote that asks them whether they want to go ahead with Brexit or stay in the EU.
Many people in my community feel used. We were taken as fools by the leave campaign who, once they got what they needed, have deserted us.
But people in my community are not stupid. If I helped bring about Brexit, I will now work twice as hard to secure a people’s vote so that, together, we can help put this right.
• Oli Khan is a chef and the secretary general of the Bangladesh Caterers Association