The UK fishing industry has been given the green light to hire more overseas workers

Ministers have quietly agreed to allow more overseas workers to join Britain’s fishing industry as the sector struggles with labor shortages and post-Brexit export controls.

Share fishers, trawler skippers and deckhands on large fishing vessels are to be added to the government’s missing occupations list, a system that allows UK employers to pay overseas workers 80 per cent of the standard wage in certain industries.

The move comes after ministers agreed in March that more overseas workers could join the UK construction industry. Other sectors, including retail and hospitality, are also lobbying to be added to the Home Office’s shortage occupations list.

Ministers have accepted the need to continue allowing skilled overseas workers into the UK, despite a backlash from Conservative parties over high net migration. In 2022, they set a record total of 606,000, equivalent to the population of Sheffield.

Opening the UK’s doors to more overseas fishermen is a tacit acknowledgment that Brexit has not delivered the boost to the sector promised by Boris Johnson and other Leave campaigners during the 2016 referendum.

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Johnson has been accused of “selling out” the sector in negotiations with the EU over fishing rights, which were part of a trade deal in 2020, despite insisting that the deal would see Britain “catch staggering amounts you will be able to eat and catch “extra fish”.

“Promises have been made that have not been kept,” said Mike Cohen, chief executive of the National Federation of Fisheries Organisations, the trade body representing fishermen in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. “We are still not behaving like an independent state like other coastal states. France owns the vast majority of the cod quota in the English Channel.”

Tight profit margins have forced fishing boat captains to hold down wages, and few British workers want to work in cramped and difficult conditions.

“The fishing industry is not considered the best place to work,” said Aoife Martin, director of operations at Seafish, the UK’s seafood industry support body. “The reliance on foreign labor is increasing.”

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According to Seafish, around 30 per cent of the total number of UK fishermen come from overseas. They are typically recruited from the Philippines or Ghana, which have strong maritime traditions.

“We want to recruit local people, but it’s hard to find enough,” Cohen said.

While the industry welcomed the addition of fishermen to the list of shortage occupations, there are still obstacles to solving the labor shortage.

Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, said Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick’s refusal to lower the level of English language skills required made the move “absolutely pointless for the fishing industry”.

Jenrick said on Tuesday that the relaxed rules on hiring foreign workers in the fishing industry were part of a “comprehensive support package” to ensure the sector can “take full advantage of the fish in UK waters”.

In 2021, the government announced a £100m UK maritime fund to support the industry after access to key EU markets was thrown into chaos by new controls and paperwork.

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Moving seafood from the UK to the EU used to take one to two days, but now it takes two to three days, Martin said. “It’s a very big problem if you’re trying to export, for example, very valuable live shellfish.”