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Out-Law News 2 min. read

UK seaman visa guidance gives clarity to offshore employers

Recently published UK government guidance provides employers, particularly those operating in UK territorial waters, with important clarification on the issue of which seamen and offshore workers require a work visa and which do not, an expert has said.

The Home Office recently updated its caseworker guidance for seamen arriving in the UK, which sets out the guidance and the process for seamen arriving in the UK as operational crew or passengers joining a ship as crew members.

Maria Gravelle, immigration law specialist at Pinsent Masons, said: “The correct position, while undesirable for many employers, has now been clarified. Previous versions of the guidance contained wording to suggest that seafarers did not need work permission for the UK as long as the vessel was operating “wholly or largely” outside UK waters. This conflicted with the Home Office guidance for offshore workers, which states that all workers working inside UK territorial waters require appropriate immigration permissions. The “wholly or largely” wording has now been removed, confirming that work permission is required for any work inside UK territorial waters, regardless of duration.”

In many cases this will require an application to UK visas and immigration prior to travel, but in some circumstances an exemption may still apply.

As per the latest guidance, offshore workers, non-UK nationals who enter UK waters for the purpose of working in those waters, always require a visa or other permission. These individuals may require permission from UK Visas and Immigration prior to travel into UK waters and both their arrival and departure must be reported.

Non-UK nationals who arrive in the UK for the purpose of working in UK waters, regardless of whether this is land, air or sea, are considered offshore workers. This group also includes crew on a vessel which is not engaged in ‘innocent passage’ or transiting to access a single UK port or platform, and crew on a vessel that visits more than one place in the UK.

Seafarers, also referred to as contract seamen, are crew engaging in the service of a vessel which is due to leave the UK within a ‘reasonable time’ and is then operating outside UK territorial waters. These individuals can generally enter the UK without entry clearance.

This group of workers includes non-UK nationals who arrive in the UK via land but join a vessel due to leave the UK, with the vessel then operating outside of UK waters. Crew engaged on a vessel operating outside the UK but who will undertake work in UK waters incidental to their role aboard the ship, such as maintaining the vessel or uploading goods at a single UK port, are also included in this group. Crew transiting through UK waters from non-UK waters or to a single port in the UK and vice versa, as well as crew upon a vessel passing through UK waters used for international navigation, are also considered ‘seafarers’.

Every time a person works in the UK without the correct permission, they expose both themselves and their employer to liability. Workers can be removed from the UK and banned from returning, while employers can face significant fines for each instance of illegal working. In very serious cases there can even be criminal liability.

There is no general duty on an employer to report to UK Visas and Immigration instances where a worker may not have previous had the correct permission to work. However, further instances of illegal working may make the employer liable for civil penalties.

“It would be best to correct practices now even if possible mistakes have been made in the past,” said Gravelle. 

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