Crabs caught in UK picked in Vietnam due to staff shortage

A worker picks crab
Image caption Few local people want to work in the Devon crab factory, the company says

A seafood company is sending UK-caught crabs on a 20,000-mile round trip to Asia because it cannot find enough staff to handpick them at home.

If the trial is successful, Devon-based Blue Sea Food Company will transfer 20% of its production to Vietnam.

It said it was doing all it could to hire locally, but was concerned about the future of its European workers.

The government said its skills-based immigration plans will meet the demands of the economy after Brexit.

At present 60% of the crab-processing company's 150 staff come from the European Union, many from Bulgaria.

"It's not very sexy and it's not something that people generally want to come and do. We try very hard to get people to come and work from the local community," said company director Dawn Spencer.

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Image caption Company director Dawn Spencer says staff shortages means some crab picking has been moved to Vietnam

The company is shipping frozen crab claws to Vietnam to be processed and then shipped back to the UK for the European market, a practice done by other UK fish suppliers.

It told BBC Inside Out South West the demand for its crab is due to increase by nearly a third this year, largely driven by the Chinese market.

"In the next 12 months we should be landing a further thousand tonnes of crab - that means that we need more staff in the factory.

"To mitigate that risk of not being able to get those staff, we've had to outsource some production to Vietnam," she added.

The 20,000 mile journey

  • Crab caught in UK, Irish and Dutch waters is sent to The Blue Sea Food Company's processing site in Paignton, south Devon
  • It is then cooked and dismembered: some is frozen whole and sold in southern Europe and Asia, while live crab is flown to Asia
  • Under the trial, cooked crab claws are then frozen and shipped to Vietnam to be picked and bagged
  • The claw meat is then shipped back to the UK where it is mixed with locally picked parts
  • It is then sold to customers in Europe

Post-Brexit, EU crab pickers are unlikely to be able to come to the UK and settle permanently.

Under plans released in December, the government said lower-skilled and unskilled migrants would be subject to a temporary 12-month limit on working in the UK - an additional concern for the crab company.

"The thought that people can't bring their family worries me, because surely you want your family around you to be happy and hopefully stay in the UK and keep the money in this country," Ms Spencer said.

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