The end of the Offshore Wind Worker Concession
The UK offshore wind sector is facing challenges from the new immigration rules that came into force after Brexit. The rules require foreign workers who join vessels engaged in the construction and maintenance of offshore wind projects in UK territorial waters to obtain visas and work permits. This has increased the costs and administrative burden for employers and contractors, as well as creating uncertainty and delays for workers.
The Offshore Wind Worker Concession (OWWC), which was introduced by the UK Government in 2017, allowed foreign workers to enter the UK without visas for short periods of time to work on offshore wind projects. The concession was a temporary measure that aimed to address the skills shortage in the sector and support its growth. However, the OWWC ended in April 2023, leaving the offshore wind industry without a tailored immigration solution.
The impact of the new immigration rules on the offshore wind sector
According to Maria Gravelle, an immigration specialist at Pinsent Masons, a top international legal firm, the new immigration rules have significant and predictable consequences for the offshore wind sector. She said that the visas themselves can be extremely costly and that the extra red tape and administrative burden on employers is impacting on project budgets, skewing tenders for new developments and in some cases could even delay work scopes.
Gravelle also said that the majority of offshore crews are made up of non-British and Irish nationals who have an extensive range of certifiable skills and pose a low risk to UK immigration control. She said that these workers do not want to be based in the UK long-term for tax purposes and that they are essential for the sector’s development and competitiveness.
Gravelle added that there is also a lack of clarity on which employer or contractor in the supply chain should take responsibility for sponsorship and visa clearance when crews are contracted externally. This creates confusion and uncertainty for both workers and employers, as well as potential legal risks.
The need for a sector-specific immigration route
Gravelle said that the offshore wind sector urgently needs a tailored immigration arrangement that would allow foreign workers to enter the UK easily and quickly for short-term assignments. She suggested that a possible solution could be a sector-specific route, similar to what was previously introduced to address shortages of workers such as HGV drivers.
Gravelle said that such a route would benefit both the offshore wind industry and the UK economy, as it would support the government’s ambition to make the UK a world leader in clean energy and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. She also said that it would help to create jobs, boost investment and innovation, and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
Gravelle urged the government and the industry to work together to find a suitable solution that would ensure the safety and benefits of offshore wind projects. She said that without an appropriate fix, the UK will become increasingly undesirable for skilled offshore workers and their employers.
The response from the government and the industry
The Home Office has not yet commented on the issue of immigration rules for offshore wind workers. However, it has previously stated that it is committed to supporting the growth of renewable energy in the UK and that it has introduced a points-based immigration system that is fair and flexible.
The government has also announced a £160 million investment in upgrading ports and infrastructure to support offshore wind projects, as well as setting a target of generating 40 gigawatts of electricity from offshore wind by 2030. The government claims that this will create thousands of jobs, cut carbon emissions, and lower energy bills.
The offshore wind industry has welcomed the government’s support and investment, but has also expressed concerns about the impact of immigration rules on its workforce. The industry body RenewableUK has called for a review of the visa requirements for offshore wind workers and has highlighted the need for a streamlined process that would allow them to enter the UK quickly and easily.
The industry has also stressed the importance of developing domestic skills and talent, as well as attracting foreign workers, to meet its growing demand. The industry has launched several initiatives to train and recruit more people into offshore wind careers, such as apprenticeships, scholarships, mentoring programmes, and diversity campaigns.