Ministers have quietly agreed to allow more overseas workers to join the UK fishing industry, as the sector struggles with labour shortages and post-Brexit export regulations.
Share fishermen, trawler skippers and deckhands on large fishing vessels are to be added to the government’s shortage occupation list, a scheme which allows UK employers to pay overseas workers about 80 per cent of the usual wage in certain industries.
The move comes after ministers in March agreed more overseas workers could join Britain’s construction industry. Other sectors including retail and hospitality are lobbying to be added to the Home Office’s shortage occupation list.
Ministers have accepted the need to continue to allow skilled overseas workers into the UK in spite of a Conservative party backlash over high levels of net migration. The total hit a record 606,000 in 2022, equivalent to the population of Sheffield.
The opening of the UK’s doors to more overseas fishermen is a tacit recognition that Brexit has not generated the boom in the sector that had been promised by Boris Johnson and other Leave campaigners at the time of the 2016 referendum.
Johnson was accused of “selling out” the industry in a negotiation with the EU on fishing rights that formed part of a trade agreement in 2020, despite his insistence that as a result of the deal Britain would be able to “catch and eat prodigious quantities of extra fish”.
“Promises were made that did not materialise,” said Mike Cohen, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, a trade body that represents fishermen in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. “We still don’t act like an independent state as other coastal states do. France holds the vast majority of the cod quota in the Channel.”
Tight profit margins have forced skippers of fishing vessels to hold down wages and few British workers want to work in cramped and tough conditions.
“The fishing industry isn’t perceived to be the best place to work,” said Aoife Martin, director of operations at Seafish, a public body that supports the UK seafood industry. “There is an increasing reliance on foreign labour.”
About 30 per cent of the UK’s total fishing crew are from overseas, according to Seafish. They are typically recruited from the Philippines or Ghana, nations with a strong seafaring tradition.
“We would like to be recruiting local people but it’s difficult to find sufficient labour,” said Cohen.
While the sector has welcomed the addition of fishermen to the shortage occupation list, obstacles remain to resolving labour shortages.
Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, said immigration minister Robert Jenrick’s refusal to lower the standard of English language skills required rendered the move “absolutely meaningless for the fishing industry”.
Jenrick said on Tuesday that looser rules for hiring workers in the fisheries sector from abroad was part of “a comprehensive package of support” to ensure the industry could “fully benefit from the fish in UK waters”.
In 2021 the government announced a £100mn UK seafood fund to support the industry after access to its key EU markets was thrown into chaos by new checks and paperwork.
Moving seafood from the UK to the EU used to take one to two days, but now takes two to three, said Martin. “That is a very big issue when you’re trying to export highly valuable live shellfish for example.”