Offshore workers from overseas: choosing the right Visa option

Sean Rhodes (Fragomen)

by Sean Rhodes, manager, Fragomen

ENERGY companies are having to keep on top of often complex employment rules and regulations if their offshore rig crews feature personnel from overseas. It’s a particular issue if they were used to hiring European nationals pre-Brexit and are therefore unfamiliar with the sponsorship routes.

Whether working beyond or within UK territorial waters, compliance is essential. Your projects, your bottom line and ultimately your company’s success can be derailed if you are penalised for noncompliance. 

One of the most common scenarios we see among our clients is one of a crew working on a rig outside of the UK’s 12-mile territorial limit, but the employer then needs work to be undertaken within UK territorial waters – on a rig in port, for example. 

Workers based outside of UK territorial waters aren’t subject to UK immigration control and, as long as the work they are performing is undertaken on an installation wholly at sea and fixed to the seabed (either permanently or temporarily), then they don’t require work authorisation. Instead, they can obtain an offshore worker visa that is valid for up to one year, which allows them to transit through the UK and reside onshore in the UK during rotations.

When an employee needs to undertake work within UK territorial waters, a sponsored work visa must be obtained. The preference would be to ‘switch’ to obtain this visa from within the UK, both for speed and cost reasons. UKVI guidance does not expressly confirm whether this is possible, however it is noted that those granted ‘leave outside the rules’ are unable to switch.  

As there is no specific provision within the immigration rules that applies to offshore workers, their visas are in effect granted ‘outside of the rules’ and UKVI’s policy team have confirmed that offshore workers are therefore unable to benefit from switching provisions; such individuals will need to leave the UK to apply for a work-sponsored visa from their country of nationality or residence. While this policy puts an additional burden onto companies who employ these workers, it does at least provide the required clarity to support efficient project planning. 

Companies should assess at the outset whether any work is to be undertaken within the 12-mile territorial limit. If it’s a possibility, the project manager should then decide whether to obtain work-sponsored visas up front to underpin business continuity; individual workers would have the correct permissions if required to work within UK territorial waters. Alternatively, the company may opt to proceed with offshore worker visas if it’s most likely that all work will be completed offshore.

Due to these complexities, companies are advised to engage with an immigration firm at the onset of the project planning to ensure all sponsor licence applications are properly prepared and submitted to the Home Office in a timely manner. 

Once the sponsor licence is in place, the outside legal team can help prepare the visa application, which must be submitted from outside the UK, as well as with workplace planning to help ensure that workers obtain the most relevant visas.

The position articulated by UKVI does limit the choices for businesses as they look to assemble and maintain their project teams, but at the same time it means they’re planning from a position of knowledge and certainty – and that is an invaluable asset as they focus on reliable delivery.

Sean Rhodes is a manager at Fragomen, a leading firm dedicated exclusively to immigration services worldwide. His clients include firms with offices based in Scotland. Fragomen has almost 6,000 immigration professionals and support staff in more than 60 offices across the Americas, EMEA and Asia Pacific. Fragomen offers immigration support in more than 170 countries.    

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