‘Illegal immigrants were not working in Cookstown restaurant, they were just visiting’

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A Mid Ulster businessman has defended the discovery of four “illegal workers” at his restaurants in Cookstown and Dungannon, saying they were not working - just visiting.

The men, from Bangladesh and Burma, were found by Home Office Immigration Enforcement Officers during two separate raids of Bengal Spice premises in September and October.

Three men, aged 22, 29 and 33, were taken from the Cookstown restaurant on Burn Road when officials visited on September 25, and after questioning staff on their right to “live and work in the UK”, arrested them.

Whilst the fourth, a 30-year-old Bangladeshi man was found “with no permission to work” during a visit to Bengal Spice on Thomas Street, Dungannon on October 16, according to a Home Office spokesperson.

But, when contacted by the Mail, Mr Alim, Bengal Spice manager, denied that any of the men were working at his restaurants.

He said: “They are not illegal, they are not working there. Police said they are working... but they are not employed with me.”

When asked whether he checked if his staff had the proper permissions to work here, Mr Alim added: “I got the lesson - a good lesson from them - and from now I’m not keeping anyone without checking their papers.

“Police tell me, they are illegal workers, but I tell them they are not illegal workers they just came for a visit.”

A Home Office spokesperson told the Mail: “The men have not been deported and we don’t deport routinely, but remove those who have no right to be in the UK.”

The fate of the men, however, is not yet clear.

Bernadette McAliskey, CEO of STEP, the Mid Ulster rights-based organisation which provides immigration and legal advice, said: “It can be difficult for employers in small or medium enterprises to negotiate the law in relation to the employment of immigrant labour.

“The vast majority of migrant workers and immigrants are lawfully here. Nonetheless, employers can pay dearly for illegally employing people so in a changing environment it pays to be careful.”

The 2006 Act on Immigration, Asylum and Nationality outline an employer’s duty to “prevent illegal working by carrying out document checks to confirm if a person has the right to work in the UK”, or they can face fines of up to £20,000.

DUP MLA Ian McCrea said: “It is vital that restaurant owners comply with the law.

“Those working here illegally have no protections and can be subject to exploitation. The public purse also loses out on the proper taxes which should be paid, and those genuine job seekers find themselves undercut by illegal workers paid low wages.”

Whilst Sinn Fein’s Dominic Molloy warned that such situations need to be “approached with a degree caution” adding: “I’m against criminalising people who came here by whatever means to either escape persecution or to make a better life.

“I’ve heard nothing to suggest it, but if people are being exploited in poor working conditions and underpaid then that needs addressed.

“Employers locally should be ensuring they treat all staff with equality and fairness in all aspects of employment.”