Ministers quietly agreed to allow more foreign workers to join the UK fishing industry as the sector struggles with labor shortages and post-Brexit export regulations.
Part-time fishermen, trawler captains and seamen on large fishing vessels will be added to the government’s list of scarce occupations, a scheme that allows UK employers to pay foreign workers around 80 per cent of wages. common in certain industries.
The move comes after ministers agreed in March that more foreign workers could join the British construction industry. Other sectors, including retail and hospitality, are pushing to be added to the Home Office’s shortage occupancy list.
Ministers have accepted the need to continue to allow skilled foreign workers into the UK despite backlash from the Conservative Party over high levels of net migration. The total reached a record 606,000 in 2022, equivalent to the population of Sheffield.
The opening of the UK’s gates to more foreign fishermen is a tacit acknowledgment that Brexit has not delivered the boom in the industry that Boris Johnson and other Leave campaigners had promised at the time of the 2016 referendum.
Johnson was accused of “selling out” the industry in a negotiation with the EU over fishing rights that was part of a trade deal in 2020, despite his insistence that as a result of the deal Britain would be able to “catch and eat prodigious amounts.” of extra fish”.
“Promises were made that didn’t materialise,” said Mike Cohen, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, a trade body representing fishermen in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. “We still don’t act as an independent state like other coastal states do. France owns the vast majority of the cod quota in the Channel.
Tight profit margins have forced fishing boat captains to keep wages low and few British workers want to work in harsh, overcrowded conditions.
“The seafood industry is not perceived as the best place to work,” said Aoife Martin, chief operating officer of Seafish, a public body that supports the UK seafood industry. “There is a growing dependence on foreign labor.”
Around 30 per cent of the UK’s total fishing crew comes from abroad, according to Seafish. They are usually recruited in the Philippines or Ghana, nations with a strong seafaring tradition.
“We’d like to hire local people, but it’s hard to find enough labor,” Cohen said.
While the industry has welcomed the addition of fishermen to the list of scarce occupations, obstacles remain in solving the labor shortage.
Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, said immigration minister Robert Jenrick’s refusal to reduce the level of English language proficiency required made the move “absolutely meaningless to the fishing industry”.
Jenrick said on Tuesday that the looser rules for recruiting workers in the seafood sector from abroad were part of “a comprehensive package of support” to ensure the industry could “fully benefit from fish in UK waters”.
In 2021, the government announced a £100m UK seafood fund to support the industry after access to its key EU markets was thrown into chaos by new checks and red tape.
Moving seafood from the UK to the EU used to take one or two days, but now it takes two to three, Martin said. “That’s a very big problem when it comes to exporting high-value live shellfish, for example.”