People coming to work in the UK from abroad generally need a work visa. This includes people working in the UK’s territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles off the coast.

The UK fishing fleet relies heavily on foreign crew. In one survey carried out in 2021, over a third (36%) of workers were foreign nationals, and 61% for Northern Irish vessels. While owners and skippers in the sample were overwhelmingly British, a majority of deckhands were from countries such as the Philippines, Ghana and Latvia.

Vessels operating outside UK territorial waters are not required to comply with work visa rules. Instead they can rely on an exemption under section 8 of the Immigration Act 1971, sometimes known as a ‘transit visa’. The International Transport Workers’ Federation argues this is a “loophole” that allows migrant workers to be exploited, but the government has said it is “perfectly legitimate”.

Work visa requirements for inshore fishing crew

Fishing vessels operating within UK waters — the ‘inshore’ fleet — are required to comply with immigration requirements. In the government’s view, they have not always done so.

It became apparent during the noughties that inshore vessels were hiring foreign workers without work visas. While the legal position is complicated, Home Office policy guidance has long stated that work visas are required if vessels are operating “wholly or mainly” in UK waters.

The Brown Government accepted that “immediate enforcement of the immigration rules would have a significant and negative impact” on the fishing industry, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It introduced a temporary concession, beginning in March 2010, allowing existing crew to continue working outside the Immigration Rules (PDF). The Coalition Government ended the concession in August 2012.

Ministers have nevertheless identified that many inshore vessels have been “incorrectly relying on transit visas rather than work visas to crew their boats”. The fact that EU citizens could previously work without any visa under free movement rules, and now cannot, is likely to have exacerbated compliance difficulties since Brexit (PDF).

Recent legislation to “clarify” the visa regime

In 2021, the Johnson Government sought to confirm the policy on work visa requirements in primary legislation by amending the Immigration Act 1971. The clause introduced to do this became section 43 of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022. A Home Office minister told the House of Commons that the measure merely “clarifies the Government’s policy position to date: that foreign nationals working in our waters need permission to do so”.

Section 43 came into force on 12 April 2023. The government said it had delayed commencement by six months to allow the industry more time to come into “full compliance with the UK immigration system”. Home Secretary Suella Braverman told industry leaders that inshore fishing crews had been “working illegally” on transit visas and that she was concerned about “increasing levels of labour abuse” at sea (PDF).

Some in the sector felt they had been led to expect that there would be a temporary concession, like the one in place from 2010-2012, to give them more time to move crew on to work visas. They pointed to a “constructive” meeting with the immigration minister in January 2023 and to concessions for other maritime industries. Certain well boat workers can work in UK territorial waters visa-free until February 2024, and a similar concession was in place for offshore wind farm workers from 2017 to April 2023. The government has ruled out a fishing industry visa concession.

The tighter visa rules for inshore vessels have more of an impact in certain parts of the country. Fishing businesses based on the west coast of Scotland, for example, would have to travel much further to leave UK waters because the 12-mile limit only begins beyond the Hebrides. Some species, such as prawns, are also easier to catch inshore.

Skilled Worker visas and the shortage occupation list

Fishing crew who need visas to work on inshore vessels may be eligible for a Skilled Worker visa. The list of eligible occupations includes skippers, engineers, and deckhands with at least three years’ experience if working on vessels measuring nine metres or longer. Deckhands had not been eligible at all before April 2021.

The industry says the Skilled Worker route is unsuitable for its needs. In particular, what Fishing News describes as a “draconian” requirement for applicants to speak English is seen as a barrier for deckhands. A spokesperson for the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance told the newspaper: “getting fishermen through the B1 English language requirement is now a big issue. Crew Services has 325 non-UK crew on its books, of which just six have the B1 English language certificate”.

There are also costs involved. To sponsor a five-year Skilled Worker visa might cost around £7,000, assuming the business covers all fees and charges, a case study on the Free Movement website points out. But in May 2023, the Home Office announced that fishing jobs already eligible for sponsorship would be added to the shortage occupation list from the summer. This means lower visa fees — although no exemption from other costs, such as the Immigration Skills Charge — and the right to sponsor workers at a minimum salary of £20,960 rather than the £26,200 currently required.

As of May 2022, no UK vessels had sponsored foreign crew on Skilled Worker visas, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation. The Scottish government has said there should be “changes” to the Skilled Worker regime so that it is accessible to the fishing fleet.

The Home Secretary has written to industry leaders offering practical support with the Skilled Worker application process (PDF). This includes extra language English language testing capacity, a dedicated point of contact in UK Visas and Immigration and expedited visa processing (8-10 days rather than 15 working days). Seafish, a government body, has also commissioned guidance to help businesses navigate the process.

Recent Parliamentary interest and further reading

Fishing Industry: Visas for Foreign Workers, HL Deb 24 April 2023 cc1039-1042

Fishing Industry: Visas for Foreign Workers, HC Deb 20 April 2023 cc369-75

PQ 73097 [on Fisheries: Migrant Workers], answered 2 November 2022  

UK Fishing Industry: Non-EEA Visas, HC Deb 8 April 2019 cc148-157

Non-EEA Visas: Inshore Fishing, HC Deb 17 July 2018 cc21-47WH

Fishing Industry: Visas for Non-EEA Citizens, HC Deb 11 July 2018 cc1077-1085

Letter from Home Secretary Suella Braverman on visa support for the seafood sector (PDF), 24 April 2023

Commons Library briefing CDP 2022/0108, Inshore fishing fleet, 9 June 2022

University of Nottingham Rights Lab, Letting exploitation off the hook? Evidencing labour abuses in UK fishing (PDF), May 2022

International Transport Workers’ Federation, A one way ticket to labour exploitation: How transit visa loopholes are being used to exploit migrant fishers on UK fishing vessels, 16 May 2022

Free Movement, Briefing: the immigration rules covering foreign citizens in the UK fishing fleet, 15 May 2018

Seafish, Working on UK fishing vessels: the legal framework and support for fishers, 1 November 2017

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