THE owners of ethnic restaurants in Scotland have criticised the tactics of UK borders officials carrying out snap raids on businesses suspected of employing illegal immigrants.
This week, for the first time, equality chiefs will sit down with immigration officials and local restaurateurs to discuss concerns over the current system. On Thursday, Edinburgh & Lothians Regional Equality Council is staging a meeting at the Scottish Parliament between the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and Scottish restaurateurs over the raids.
Restaurateurs say raids are unnecessarily heavy-handed with customers forced out of packed restaurants at peak times and an assumption of guilt from the outset.
Every year, the UKBA imposes civil penalties on thousands of businesses found to be employing foreign workers illegally. However, owners of ethnic restaurants in Scotland say the current system is flawed as checking the validity of employees is a difficult and lengthy process.
There are now calls for more joined-up thinking between tax officials and the UKBA. One restaurateur cited a case where their business was paying tax and national insurance on an employee for a year before any checks were made.
Mustaq Ajmal, a chef, restaurateur and food writer from South Lanarkshire, says feedback from owners about the raids is overwhelmingly negative.
He said: "It's very heavy-handed. The moment they walk in you are guilty. They ask the customers to leave the premises there and then. A restaurant full of people on a Saturday night? I don't think the process need be so detrimental to the business."
He contrasted the UKBA with environmental health agencies, saying: "They come in and say we are looking to do some checks. What they don't do is make it a big showdown. We know they need to carry out their investigations."
Ajmal described a fine of £10,000 per illegal immigrant found on the premises as "excessive" and said it amounted to "a money-making exercise for the UKBA".
However, he maintained he supported punishing offenders, saying: "I don't think any restaurant should be employing illegal workers – but I do think it can be quite difficult to do proper checks.
"If you have a situation where a person turns up looking for a job – he is telling me he's applied for an extension to his visa. It's quite a lengthy process to do a check. It could be 10 to 20 days for a response. That's far too long. Why wouldn't the HMRC detect that from the outset?"
In March, a Chinese restaurant in Glasgow was banned from selling alcohol for six months after a raid by immigration officials and police.
They found all but one of the nine workers in the King's Lodge buffet restaurant in Union Street at the time of the raid were illegal immigrants. Last month, three men were caught working illegally following raids in an Aberdeen restaurant and spice shop.
Naz Akxi, from the Ashoka restaurant in Ashton Lane, Glasgow, believes restaurant owners should be given more support. She said: "We were raided about three years ago. We had the paperwork, we were extremely diligent but it was all fake. We were none the wiser. They will find a way.."
Foysol Choudhury MBE, restaurateur and chairman of the Edinburgh & Lothian Equality Council, said the purpose of next Thursday's meeting is to help build a bridge between the business community and the UKBA.
He said: "We want to know what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong. We don't want to interfere in the work they are doing.
"There is a lot of confusion about the process. The UKBA laws say you must have copies of official documents of every employee. However, data protection says you shouldn't have anyone else's ID."
The most recent figures from the Home Office show that 356 raids were carried out in Scotland and Northern Ireland in 2010, with 365 people arrested. A UKBA spokesperson said: "We make no apology for enforcing our immigration laws. Businesses which employ illegal workers undermine law-abiding firms."
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