Maria Gravelle: Visa woes create stormy seas for the UK’s offshore wind sector

Maria Gravelle: Visa woes create stormy seas for the UK's offshore wind sector

Maria Gravelle

Twelve nautical miles are causing waves for the offshore wind sector which is struggling to recruit staff because complicated visa restrictions are deterring highly skilled foreign workers, writes Maria Gravelle.

That’s the distance from the shoreline to the Territorial Sea boundary, where offshore workers who are not British or Irish citizens now need visas to work.

The offshore wind workers concession – axed on 30 April – previously allowed foreign national workers to enter the UK for the purpose of joining a vessel engaged in the construction and maintenance of wind farms within UK territorial waters.

Industry bodies pleaded with the Home Office to make the concession permanent because it was foreseeable that its removal would cause massive issues for a sector which is predominantly staffed by non-UK/Irish nationals, but to no avail.

Now companies operating on offshore wind projects within 12 nautical miles must navigate a set of extremely complex Immigration Rules and guidance to ensure their workers comply with the necessary visa requirements.

The knock-on effects are significant. Visas themselves can be extremely costly and the extra red tape and administrative burden on employers could impact on project budgets, skew tenders for new developments or even delay work scopes.

For sponsorship-based visas, the employer would first need to apply for a sponsor licence from the Home Office, and in a sector where crew are often contracted as part of a wider commercial agreement, it can be challenging to identify who should take sponsorship responsibility. Then, it can cost the sponsor up to several thousand pounds per person to actually sponsor the workers and apply for their visas.

The UK’s sponsored visa system is predicated towards people who work onshore Monday to Friday 9-5 – not the rotational working patterns commonly found in the offshore sector. It’s a highly mobile sector and workers may, for example, come into the UK to work 80 hours for two weeks then head home for a break, before embarking on another project in Thailand or Norway. These workers might only need to enter the UK for a few weeks per year to complete a specific project.

Also, the minimum salary threshold for a sponsored worker can be high in the UK when compared to other countries, which complicates payment arrangements and has budget implications for contracts involving the provision of crew.

Offshore workers coming into UK waters have an extensive range of certifiable skills. The work is highly specialised and there is a shortage of the required certifications in the UK job market. These workers pose a low risk to UK immigration control as they do not seek to be based in the UK long-term.

One solution would be to introduce a sector-specific immigration route, similar to the offshore wind workers concession - but more permanent. This has been done before in catering for specific groups in “shortage” industries, such as poultry workers or HGV drivers. Without an appropriate fix, the UK as a location for skilled offshore workers and their employers will become increasingly undesirable.

Offshore worker immigration, energy transition and the decarbonisation of the shipping sector, will be discussed by legal experts and business leaders at a Pinsent Masons seminar in Aberdeen on 12 October.

Maria Gravelle is an associate at Pinsent Masons

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