In view of the pending changes for the seafood sector with regard to employing skilled workers from overseas, is the time now right for more fishing businesses to obtain a sponsor licence?

By Mark Templeton Head of immigration at legal firm Anderson Strathern

The seafood sector has recently been successful in persuading the government that many of its essential workers already eligible for sponsorship should also be added to the Shortage Occupation List. This is something that Seafood Scotland has been calling for.

Businesses in the seafood sector that hold a sponsor licence will shortly be able to pay reduced minimum salaries and visa application fees to sponsor overseas workers as share fishers, trawler skippers and experienced deckhands on large fishing vessels.

This positive development, however, only helps businesses in the sector who hold a sponsor licence. Although the number of businesses obtaining a sponsor licence has more than doubled since the end of free movement in December 2020, some sectors and particularly smaller businesses have been reluctant to obtain a licence. The financial costs and regulatory aspects of the sponsor licence system has been one of the most daunting aspects.

However, the sponsor licence system is the only immigration route businesses can utilise to address serious shortages of skilled workers. This article seeks to provide an overview of the system to allow seafood businesses to make an informed decision about whether now is the time to obtain a licence.

Why consider a sponsor licence?

Following the UK’s departure from the EU and the end of free movement, the UK’s immigration system changed significantly.

To employ skilled workers from the EU and the rest of the world, businesses must now obtain a Home Office sponsor licence. Once a licence is in place, businesses can sponsor skilled workers for up to five years at a time. A skilled worker is eligible to settle permanently in the UK after five years. As it is one of the most attractive visa options for overseas nationals, businesses can have a level of confidence that the skilled workers they sponsor will stay with them for several years.

The following jobs in the seafood sector are eligible for sponsorship: fish processors, share fishers, trawler skippers and deckhands on large fishing vessels. The latter three jobs have also been added to the Shortage Occupation List.

It is understood that fish processors have not been included in the Shortage Occupation List, but they can of course be sponsored as skilled workers. It is important to note that many other key staff for the sector are also eligible for sponsorship, including food hygienists, food technologists, quality control officers and various technicians to operate, repair and maintain processing machinery.

Costs of sponsorship

On the costs, ultimately it’s a basic calculation that will deliver a resounding yay or nay for businesses. Either the costs will be prohibitive, or the financial benefits for a business with an increased workforce will far outweigh the initial costs.

The application for a sponsor licence is currently £536 or £1,476, depending on whether the business applying is considered a small or a large company. A licence once granted is valid for four years.

Before a visa application can be made by a skilled worker, the sponsor must issue a Certificate of Sponsorship (£199) and pay an Immigration Skills Charge for each year it is intended to sponsor the skilled worker (£364 for a small sponsor, or £1,000 for a large sponsor).

The costs of the visa application by the sponsored worker can either be covered by the sponsoring business or by the worker. The visa fee is either £625 (three-year visa) or £1,235 (five-year visa). If the job is on the Shortage Occupation List, the fees are reduced to £497 or £943. There is also an Immigration Health Surcharge for the worker of £624 per year of the visa period applied for.

The jobs included on the Shortage Occupation List can be paid a reduced minimum salary of £20,960, and jobs not on the list (fish processors and all other jobs) a minimum of £26,200 or the ‘going rate’ assigned by the Home Office (if this is higher).

Excluding the salary to be paid, the total costs to sponsor a worker for three years are as follows:

Jobs on the Shortage Occupation List

Small sponsor: £3,642
Large sponsor: £5,500
Jobs not on Shortage Occupation List Small sponsor: £3,788
Large sponsor: £5,696

It is important to note that although the Certificate of Sponsorship and Immigration Skills Charge fees must be paid by the employer and not passed on to the employee, if a business covers the visa application fees and Immigration Health Surcharge on behalf of the worker, these upfront costs can be subject to a repayment agreement.

Regulation and compliance

Holding a sponsor licence involves a number of duties and responsibilities. The principal day to day areas of regulation, however, are not particularly onerous. These include:

  • Paying workers the correct salary and ensuring they only do the job they have been sponsored to do
  • Having human resources systems in place to monitor staff absences, and reporting to the Home Office when issues arise
  • Keeping accurate records of recruitment, staff attendance and payroll
  • Co-operating with the Home Office with regard to any compliance inspections.

Smaller businesses should not be put off by the regulatory compliance aspects of holding a sponsor licence. Many sectors where small businesses are predominant have obtained sponsor licences in significant numbers – the care sector being the perfect example. Staff who have received appropriate training should be able to undertake all the regulatory compliance that is required.

The serious shortage of key workers appears to show no signs of abating any time soon, and the recent positive changes for the seafood sector do seem to call for all businesses in the sector to reappraise the sponsor licence system and consider whether it now makes sense to obtain one.

Find out more here.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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