Image above: The Hothouse Cafe at 448 Chiswick High Rd
Cafe owner fined twice for employing illegal workers, in 2019 and again in 2023 – fines totalling £55,000
The owner of the Hothouse Cafe on Chiswick High Rd, Samy Amer, is applying to renew his license to serve alcohol, but the Home Office has written to Hounslow Council’s Licensing panel asking the Council to revoke it. Writing to support Mr Amer’s application, his accountant says if the Council cancels his licence ‘he may have no other choice but to close.’
The cafe currently serves alcohol from Sunday to Thursday between 11am and 11pm, and until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. Several of his customers have written to the Council saying what a great place it is, with a friendly relaxed atmosphere and Karaoke, but Mr Amer has been raided twice and caught both times employing staff who do not have the right to work in the UK, and he has been found to be paying them below the minimum wage, which is also an offence.
One woman, who worked eight hours a day for six days a week, (48 hours) was paid £220 per week, which works out as £4.58 per hour.
‘A firm response to this criminal behaviour is required’
The Immigration Enforcement team at the Home Office visited the Hothouse Cafe in September 2019 and found four women working there illegally. They visited the premises again in June last year and found an Algerian man working there as a chef, who did not have the right to work.
Publishing the documentation in preparation for the Licence panel hearing on Tuesday 6 February, the Home Office gives details of the five illegal workers’ employment conditions. They describe Mr Amer as ‘a repeat offender’:
‘We have grounds to believe the license holder has failed to meet the licensing objectives of prevention of crime and disorder’.
They point out that the use of illegal labour provides an unfair competitive edge and deprives the UK economy of tax revenue, and conclude:
‘A firm response to this criminal behaviour is required to ensure that the licence holder and/or its agents are not allowed to repeat the exercise and in particular, in the interests of the wider community to support responsible businesses and the jobs of both UK citizens and lawful migrants.’
Image above: Application registration card belonging to one of the four people working illegally at the Hothouse Cafe in 2019, showing very clearly that they were not allowed to work
2019 visit discovered four illegal workers
The cafe was initially visited by Immigration Enforcement in September 2019 where four women were identified as working illegally: two behind the counter, one in the kitchen preparing food, and a fourth who had been working as a cleaner.
One said she had been working for about four weeks on the weekends prior to the enforcement visit.
‘She stated that she was paid £7 per hour in cash by the owner. She claimed that she presented her ARC card (Application Registration Card) before she was offered the job. She confirmed that the manager knew she was not allowed to work.”
The second woman, who was paid £4.58 an hour, said she had not shown any identification to gain employment.
The woman working in the kitchen had entered the country ‘clandestinely’ by boat. She said she had been working for nearly two months and had yet to be paid, and her employer had not asked to see any documents.
The fourth woman had been working as a cleaner for over a year and was paid £7 an hour. Mr Amer said he was not aware she did not have the right to work.
Mr Amer was fined £40,000 in 2019. He appealed against the decision, but it was upheld and he paid the fine in full.
Image above: Home Office Enforcement officers took a photograph of the chef working illegally, but did not reveal his identity in their submission
2023 worker ‘presented French passport’
In June 2023 the West London Immigration, Compliance and Enforcement team went back to the Hothouse Cafe, with a licensing officer from Hounslow Council. They found an Algerian national working as a chef, who they said appeared very nervous: ‘shaking hands, avoided eye contact.’
Home Office records showed no lawful record of entry to the UK. He had an outstanding appeal, but did not have the right to work. He said he had been working at the Hothouse Cafe for 18 months, sometimes paid by cash, sometimes by bank transfer, not paying tax or National Insurance.
Mr Amer said he had been shown a French passport and that he had only been there two weeks. Then he said he had been there only one day.
The Algerian chef (not named by the Home Office) said:
“Samy has helped me to obtain a job here. I know him for a long time, and he is my friend.
“He asked me but because I was only coming to help. I did not provide any right to work or immigration status documents.”
On that occasion Mr Amer was fined £15,000. He objected, but the decision was upheld.
We asked Mr Amer for his comments and he said: “It’s all lies.”
We asked why in that case he had paid the fines. He told us his solicitor had advised him that if he had challenged it, he would have had to pay a lot more.
“Easy to check”
Employers have to check that everyone who works for them has the right to work, including British people. Those who are not British have to prove they have settled status. They are given a ‘share code’ which employers can easily look up online on the Home Office website.
We asked an employer in the hospitality industry how easy it was to check if a potential employer had the right to work here.
“It’s very easy to do” he told us. “You search for the share code and it tells you whether they are verified to work, the ‘valid to’ and ‘valid from’ dates, and whether there are any conditions – people here on a student visa are capped at 20 hours a week, for example.
“Since Brexit, everyone has been made very well aware that you have to check.”
Cllr Joanna Biddolph among those supporting Samy Amer
Cllr Joanna Biddolph
There are a number of Mr Amer’s customers who have written to the Licensing panel to support Mr Amer. There are 28 supporters whose comments appear in the documentation for the panel, describing a ‘friendly atmosphere’ and a ‘good service’.
It is variously described as ‘a great local bar which supports the community’ and ‘a beautiful hub for the community’.
‘Revoking the license of the restaurant would not only be unjust to the owners and staff, but would also deprive the local community of a valuable and cherished establishment.’
The names are redacted, but one supporter who does give her name is Cllr Joanna Biddolph, who writes:
‘He had an application from someone whose documents (such as passport and visa) later turned out to be fake. When he discovered this he paid the fine immediately, recognising the seriousness of the situation and wanting to rectify it. I understand he now has more robust systems in place to check the legality of potential employees.’
‘As this is a first, and that I am as certain as anyone can be that it will not happen again at Hothouse Cafe, I think it would be very harsh for a licence to be refused after one unintentional breach. I support the renewal of this licence.’
Update on Thursday 1 February: Cllr Biddolph says she made her comments without reading the Home Office report in full
The Opposition group of Conservative councillors on Hounslow Council have sent The Chiswick Calendar a statement from Cllr Biddolph, saying she has withdrawn her support for Mr Amer’s licence application.
“I made my comments without having read the Home Office report in full”, she said.
“I realise not reading the report in full is an error and an embarrassing one. I was shocked and visited the licensee wanting to know the background. On 22nd January, on receiving the papers for the panel hearing, I read the Home Office review and immediately wrote to the licensing department to say that I was reviewing my position.
“Later that day I said the Home Office report changed my position. I spoke to, then messaged and emailed, the licensee to say that I could not support him. That remains my position.
“As a fellow human being, I remain concerned for the licensee’s mental health and his future and have contacted him a couple of times to see how he is. This is entirely separate from the fact that I cannot support his behaviour as outlined by the Home Office.”