If you ever thought that “reality” television programmes like “UK Border Force” are far-fetched, I can officially report that what you see is what you get.
Whilst briefly slipping out of the office for lunch at a nearby restaurant this week, my main course was rudely interrupted by the fast and furious arrival of around 15 immigration officers, all dressed in stab vests, demanding to see not the menu but the owner. It rapidly became apparent that this was not just a really serious complaint about the food but a raid conducted by Home Office immigration enforcement officers to check whether all of the restaurant staff were legally entitled to live and work in the UK.
Just as on television and all those old films about busting a speakeasy during Prohibition, all exits were duly blocked by suitably burly officers and one burst in through a door to the side of the restaurant, returning a few moments later with some rather resigned-looking kitchen workers in tow. A number of the diners made swift exits unmolested – impossible to say whether they had anxieties of their own in immigration status terms or had merely spotted an opportunity to escape without paying – but as they were not actually working, I suppose that they were not the Home Office’s focus on this occasion.
What followed was a fairly surreal experience as I somewhat sheepishly picked (where do you look, other than fixedly down at your plate?) through the remainder of my beef in black bean sauce surrounded on all sides by officers sitting at the tables around me grilling each of the workers on his right to live and work in the UK. Any suggestions for proper restaurant etiquette in this situation would be gratefully appreciated. Was it the wrong moment to ask for the bill? Does one leave a tip?
I can confirm that, as on the TV programme, at least one of the workers “didn’t speak any English”, another said that he had only arrived in the UK last week, and one of the chefs, outwardly at least in the later stages of his working life, told the enforcement officers that he was in the UK “on a student visa”. It would obviously be age discriminatory and hence entirely inappropriate to express any scepticism in that regard, but as lines go, it has both the virtue and the disadvantage of being very swiftly verifiable one way or the other.
By the time I left, it appeared that a number of the staff had not been able to satisfy the officers there and then that they were working legally in the UK and that they would therefore be heading off with the enforcement officers rather than back to the washing up. And what of the restaurant owners? Under UK law, they can be fined up to £10,000 per illegal worker and, in extreme cases, given a prison sentence also. Judging by the number of staff still in discussions with officers when I left, I fear that the profits for this particular lunch sitting will have been strongly in the negative.
I will wait to see with interest whether the restaurant is open again tomorrow and, if so, whether it has become self-service (or indeed self-cook). Overall, it was a salutary experience – you might think that the faintly SWAT–like image you see on the television is “sexed-up” or somehow glamorised for dramatic effect but be warned – it really is not. These Home Office chaps really mean business.