A waiter wearing a mask and an apron with her hair pulled back tends to a dining table.

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England indoor dining resumes, but where are all the staff?

More than 1 in 10 hospitality workers in the UK have left the industry over the past year due to COVID-19. Between Brexit and the pandemic, owners are short-staffed, now that indoor dining is back.

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A member of staff sets a table in a Liverpool retaurant, as pubs, cafés and restaurants in England reopen indoors under the latest easing of the coronavirus lockdown, Liverpool, England, May 17, 2021.

Credit:

Jon Super/AP

James Chiavarini runs Il Portico Italian restaurant in southwest London, one of the oldest family-run restaurants in the capital. 

After five months of lockdown, Chiavarini can serve customers once again inside his restaurant, starting this week. Demand for tables is high, but Chiavarini, like many restaurant owners across Britain, is struggling to hire staff.

Figures suggest more than 1 in 10 hospitality workers in the UK left the industry in the last year because of the pandemic. And now, for the first time, the trade is also feeling the effects of Brexit. 

Related: As Europe plans to reopen, travelers must read the fine print

Since the start of the year, EU workers have needed a visa to work inside the UK. Restaurants have been closed since December 2020, so it’s only now that establishments like Il Portico are feeling the impact. 

Owner Chiavarini said European Union citizens planning to pick up a summer job in a restaurant simply won’t be tempted to come to the UK because of the new restrictions.

“I mean, if you're from Bulgaria, for example, you could go to Berlin, you can go to Madrid, to Portugal, you can go and work anywhere. Now that they need a visa to come to the UK, they're not going to do that."

James Chiavarini, owner, Il Portico

“I mean, if you're from Bulgaria, for example, you could go to Berlin, you can go to Madrid, to Portugal, you can go and work anywhere. Now that they need a visa to come to the UK, they're not going to do that,” he said. 

Brexit supporters have argued that the visa requirements will mean more British people will be able to get work in the industry. Il Portico's restaurant manager, Antonio Larrea, said in his experience, British people rarely do the jobs foreign nationals are willing to do.

Related: A trip to a British pub may require a COVID-19 passport  

“It’s very tough to find British people working as waiters, bartenders or baristas, or cleaning toilets and mopping floors. In restaurants, you might see them in management roles, but not waiting tables." 

Antonio Larrea, manager, Il Portico

“It’s very tough to find British people working as waiters, bartenders or baristas, or cleaning toilets and mopping floors. In restaurants, you might see them in management roles, but not waiting tables,” he said. 

Related: Spain test-drives a nationwide 4-day workweek

James Chiavarini runs Il Portico Italian restaurant in southwest London.

James Chiavarini (left) runs Il Portico Italian restaurant in southwest London, and Antonio Larrea (right) is the manager. 

Credit:

Orla Barry/The World 

Giada Calabrese, from southern Italy, arrived in London in February 2020, one month before Britain went into its first lockdown. The past year has been tough, she said, but she considers herself lucky because she has a job. 

Calabrese works as a waitress in Il Portico. She said she knows of Italians who have decided not to move to London because of the hassle of securing a visa and the cost of living: 

“You need to pay a lot of rent in London. That is not easy. And then the visa is an extra burden. It is not easy for Italian people to come here and start something.”

Giada Calabrese, waitress, Il Portico

“You need to pay a lot of rent in London. That is not easy. And then the visa is an extra burden. It is not easy for Italian people to come here and start something.”

Related: British musicians warn of devastating impact of new Brexit rules 

Giada Calabrese, from southern Italy, works behind the bar in a black shirt surrounded by cups and plates.

Giada Calabrese, from southern Italy, arrived in London in February 2020. She says the past year has been tough, but that she feels lucky to have a job. 

 

Credit:

Orla Barry/The World 

As travel restrictions are being lifted and Britain comes out of lockdown, some EU nationals are attempting to come to the UK to work, but several have received a less-than-welcome response from immigration authorities. 

Citizens from Spain, Italy and Bulgaria have recounted stories of being stopped by UK border police and held in detention centers. Some came for job interviews, but were prevented from entering the UK because they didn’t have a work visa.

the3Million, a campaign group that represents the interests of EU citizens in Britain, says this breaches the new immigration rules which state that European nationals can enter the UK to do job interviews without a visa. 

Head of policy with the group, Luke Piper, said the rules are not sufficiently clear and the tactics of immigration authorities in the past month have been unnecessarily harsh.

“It’s quite disproportionate behavior from the UK authorities. In the cases we've seen, it does appear that the UK authorities have been quite heavy-handed in these instances."

Luke Piper, head of policy, the3Million

“It’s quite disproportionate behaviour from the UK authorities. In the cases we've seen it does appear that the UK authorities have been quite heavy-handed in these instances,” he said. 

Marta Lomartire, a young Italian woman who arrived at Heathrow airport in mid-April to visit her cousin, an NHS doctor, recounted how she was stopped by authorities and locked up in a detention center for the night. She spoke little English and had her belongings removed. Her cousin Giuseppe Picchieri, a microbiologist, said he didn’t realize she would need a visa if she was staying with him and helping babysit his children.

The experience was traumatizing for her, Picchieri said, as she thought she was being taken to prison. With her phone confiscated, she had no way of communicating with anyone. 

The EU has also criticized the actions of UK border police, calling their response over the last few weeks disproportionate and heavy-handed.

Lomartire has since returned to Italy. 

In the last few days, the UK’s Home Office has issued new guidance to its border force, saying EU citizens should not be held at detention centers, but, where appropriate, should be granted bail instead. 

Piper said the recent actions of immigration authorities could well impact EU workers thinking of coming to Britain to work in hospitality.

“It wouldn't surprise me if people would be a little bit deterred by these stories, and it doesn't send a positive message. I think it's damaging,” Piper said. 

UK Hospitality, a trade body for the restaurant industry, believes much of the current staff shortages are being driven by the impact of the pandemic. Chief Executive Officer Kate Nicholls said there is a lack of confidence in the hospitality sector, because workers have seen restaurants repeatedly closed during lockdowns. 

She is calling on the British government to introduce a temporary visa for foreign nationals that could help the UK economy and, in particular, the hospitality industry. Australia is considering such a visa, she said.

“I think the Australian model of a coronavirus recovery visa, a temporary visa for workers coming to work in those parts of the economy that are deemed critical to recovery, of which tourism and hospitality is one, would be incredibly helpful to get the country back on its feet.”

Kate Nicholls, CEO, UK Hospitality

“I think the Australian model of a coronavirus recovery visa, a temporary visa for workers coming to work in those parts of the economy that are deemed critical to recovery, of which tourism and hospitality is one, would be incredibly helpful to get the country back on its feet.”

In spite of staff shortages, Il Portico owner James Chiavarini is hoping to be fully booked for the week ahead. This might mean staff will have to work a bit harder, he said. Restaurant manager Antonio Larrea agrees. 

Whatever happens, they will never turn customers away, he said. 

“We will never cut tables because we are short of staff,  it’s better for us to work harder than to do that.”

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