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Easier to employ foreign crew with new rules

Home Office accepts fishermen are skilled workers

New immigration rules will make it easier for skippers and vessel owners to employ foreign crews to help overcome crewing difficulties, reports Tim Oliver.

The Home Office has accepted the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommendation that deckhands on fishing vessels of over 9m, with three or more years’ experience using their skills, should be included in the list of occupations eligible for skilled worker visas.

Kevin Foster, UK minister for future borders and immigration, confirmed the new arrangements, which reflect many years of lobbying by the industry, on Thursday, 4 March.

In November last year, the Home Office said it would delay making a decision on the MAC recommendations, announced last October, until it had assessed the effects of Covid-19 on the labour market.

But renewed political lobbying from the Northern Ireland Fishermen’s Federation (NIFF – the Anglo-North Irish and Northern Ireland FPOs) and the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association (SWFPA), including meetings with Home Office ministers, resulted in last week’s decision to classify deckhands as skilled workers.

The decision to accept the recommendations means that although deckhands are not being added to the UK’s Shortage Occupation List – which specifies which jobs have insufficient resident workers – foreign fishermen working on vessels of over 9m will become eligible for skilled worker visas, which should make recruitment from abroad easier.

To qualify, they must be sponsored by an employer, who must offer a salary of at least £25,600, in line with other non-shortage occupations.

If the deckhand is a ‘new entrant’ – mainly those under the age of 26 – a lower salary threshold of £20,480 will apply. In all cases, the pay must also be at least £10.10 per hour. The changes take effect from 6 April.

The NIFF and SWFPA have been leading on this important issue for some time, and last year commissioned the consultancy Pye Tait to benchmark the skills needed to serve as a deckhand.

With input from Seafish and Darren Stevenson at McGill & Co Solicitors, the Pye Tait submission was made to the MAC last summer, as part of its commission into reviewing the UK’s Skills Classification System and Shortage Occupation List.

Welcoming the decision, Harry Wick, chief executive of the NIFPO, who led the project with Pye Tait on behalf of the fishermen’s organisations, said: “Pye Tait’s experience with other sectors was key to this approach. It really didn’t take the team there long to conclude that given the skill-sets deckhands must possess to pursue a career at sea, this was a profession that should be classified as skilled. It really was a no-brainer.

“The industry’s historic arguments on this issue have always been sound, and we were presented with the ideal opportunity by government to repeat them again.”

Important step

Alan McCulla, chief executive of ANIFPO, said: “This classification is clearly a very important step in the right direction. Of course challenges remain, in not only complying with the UK’s immigration rules, but in promoting a career with the fishing fleet.

“All our fishermen are valued, and we really want to see this decision result in a new approach across government to support the training, recognised qualifications and welfare of all fishing crew.”

Mike Park, chief executive of the SWFPA, said: “Some of us in the sector have been working relentlessly on this issue for many, many years. There have been many frustrations, but this decision by the Home Office comes at a crossroads for the sector that has felt let down by government over Brexit. There is an opportunity here for government to do something positive for the fishing fleet at national and regional level.

“It’s a big issue for boats operating out of Scotland’s western archipelago, some of which face issues with being forced to operate outside the 12-mile limit. It’s a big deal for them, and for getting crew ashore for rest.”

Simon Macdonald, chair of the Scottish West Coast Regional Inshore Fisheries Group, welcomed the change, but expressed reservations over the salary/wage requirements of the immigration rules.

He pointed out that most fishermen are paid on a share basis, and said the salary levels specified in the rules were ‘pretty high’.

“We welcome anything that’s going to attract new employment, but the salary thing is the big stumbling block, because boats work on a share basis and fishermen don’t always reach that quite high target,” he said.

“The government are willing, but they haven’t quite got the grasp of how this industry works, and I think there will have to be some modification to the scheme.”

He said he was due to meet Scottish fisheries minister Fergus Ewing later in the week and would be raising the matter with him.

UK government minister for Scotland David Duguid, who is MP for Banff and Buchan in NE Scotland, said the decision was good news for the Scottish whitefish fleet and represented ‘the fruits of close co-operation between government and industry’.

He said: “We have listened to concerns that crewing problems have been particularly acute here, with some boats unable to fish within 12 miles of the shore because of visa restrictions on their vital deckhands. The new arrangements should quickly ease these difficulties.”

Carmichael: ‘Victory for fishermen’

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael said: “This change of course is a victory for fishermen, who have been let down by Home Office rules for too long.

“The change should have been made months ago, but I am glad that we have finally made the government see sense. In future, ministers need to listen to skippers first, rather than dictating to the industry on their own priorities.

“While we should encourage local uptake in deckhand jobs as much as possible, non-EEA deckhands have been a vital part of the industry for years and appreciated in our communities. If we want the industry to expand further in the coming years, then demand for further worker support will not be going away.”

He added: “This is also about protecting fair and equitable working conditions for all fishing workers. Creating a clear route for non-UK deckhands will prevent unfair practices and ensure that the job market works for all fishermen.”

Key points document ‘soon’

The industry leaders said it is important that everyone understands the requirements of the new immigration rules, and on behalf of the NIFF and SWFPA, solicitor Darren Stevenson is preparing a document explaining the key points and requirements from the decision, which will be available soon.

They said that whilst there has been a focus on fishing being recognised as a skilled occupation to help non-UK fishermen comply with the UK’s complex immigration rules, being recognised as a skilled sector carries with it a kudos that should help develop and deliver a range of opportunities for all deckhands serving on fishing vessels over 9m in length.

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