03 Feb 2023

How does an organisation respond when the government seeks to criminalise its members for saving lives at sea?

By Samantha White

How does an organisation respond when the government seeks to criminalise its members for saving lives at sea? This was the challenge facing Nautilus International when the UK government proposed the ‘Nationality and Borders Bill’ in summer 2021.

One of the stated aims of the bill, according to a government policy paper, was ‘to deter illegal entry into the UK breaking the business model of criminal trafficking networks and saving lives.’ What it meant in practice, was that Nautilus members could have faced criminal sentences of life imprisonment simply for fulfilling an obligation under international maritime law.

Ship's masters are required to assist anyone found at sea who is in danger of being lost, which can involve bringing them onboard the vessel. The proposed bill would have made it a criminal offence to facilitate the arrival or entry of an asylum seeker into the UK even when this was done to save the person from imminent danger.

“You go to work one day and by the end of it you're facing life in prison, which just beggars belief!” says Helen Kelly, Director of Communications, Campaigns and Digital, Nautilus International. 

The trade union launched a campaign to ensure seafarers were exempt from criminalisation for taking part in sea rescues, and that this be codified into the law.

“The public was really quite shocked at the government's intention to criminalise the practice of saving people's lives at sea. This is enshrined in our members from day one of their studies when they're 16 or 17, but we were surprised to see how much the general public has that enshrined in them as well.”


The Nautilus UK team celebrate their win at the Memcom Awards 2022

The trade union’s work to protect seafarers won them ‘Best Lobbying Campaign’ at the Memcom Awards 2022.

Strength in numbers

Nautilus was able to secure the necessary changes to the language of the bill relatively quickly, explains Helen. “We got it in there in the third reading in the House of Commons, before it went to the Lords, because we were able to build up quite a strong coalition of organisations that were supportive of making these changes.”

That coalition contained some unlikely bedfellows. “We worked really closely with the UK Chamber of Shipping, with which we have a great relationship in many ways, but actually, they represent the employers, the ship owners, so oftentimes, we're on opposite sides of the negotiating table.

We also got consensus with Maritime UK, the industry umbrella body, which represents a wide range of employers and other organisations, as well as with the International Transport Workers’ Federation.”

The ITF was really important to the campaign as it was able to provide an international spotlight. “They took it to the International Labour Organisation on our behalf, which was then able to put pressure on the UK Government to say, ‘Look, you've signed up to these international treaties, and if you bring this law into force as it is now, your domestic law will be in contravention of your international obligations.’”

The campaign involved lobbying key parliamentary stakeholders such as the Home Secretary, Secretary of State for Transport, and the Maritime Minister, along with their counterparts in the Opposition, and asking MPs to raise Written Parliamentary Questions to inform both Houses of their concerns.

The reassurances provided by ministers that the bill ‘did not seek to punish humanitarian actions’ were not enough. Once Nautilus had secured the support of the industry, the trade union drafted its own amendments to the bill and shared them with supportive MPs, across the political divide.

Secured in January 2022, the amended legislation specifies that it is an offence to facilitate entry for profit, thus allowing the prosecution of people-smugglers but protecting humanitarian actions.

Harness outrage

“Outrage can be really effective in terms of political lobbying,” says Helen.

Another aspect of the Nautilus campaign was to ask members and the public to contact their MPs with their concerns about the bill. The union got the message out via social media, focusing on influencers. “We were targeting a lot of the journalists with the highest number of followers, and we knew the ones that might be sympathetic to this type of information. For example, LBC presenter James O'Brien tweeted about our work around this, and it got huge amounts of responses and feedback.”

“I would say harness the outrage! Target the people who you think will be your biggest supporters. Don't be shy. Just give it a go!”

Empower activist members

Members who are willing to stand up and talk about the issues also help secure media impact, notes Helen. Both journalists and the public are motivated by those personal stories.

This posed a challenge for Nautilus as it's standard practice in the sector to include Non Disclosure Agreements in employment contracts.

“So in 2021, we created a network of activist members. We've tried to identify members across the career spectrum, from cadets all the way through to captains, and some retirees. We have empowered these ‘Nautilus Champions’ to speak to the press about the issues or to advocate in some way, whether that's jumping on a podcast with us or sitting in on a webinar.” Alongside the training and support provided by the union, “We've demonstrated to them that we can protect their identity where necessary.”

In the case of the Nationality and Borders Bill, these Nautilus champions advocated in the background, providing insight on what the bill would mean for them as individuals and for their careers. “Being able to offer the media that insight anonymously, even off the record, really, really helped.”

Build networks now

When working on such a high profile, high stakes issue, Helen recommends the ‘strength in numbers’ approach, which comes naturally to a trade union with many networks and affiliations. “But for other membership groups, that would be my recommendation. Build networks now. Not when you have a campaign, not when an issue comes up. Make that a core part of your campaign strategy from the get go.”

“As a trade union, we are not party affiliated – that is our members’ choice. It gives us the ability to work in a cross-party manner, with any MP or member of the House of Lords who understands our members’ needs and is supportive.”

Though that can be a strength, as in the case of garnering support for the changes to the bill, it had meant that in the past, Nautilus hadn’t invested in those relationships in any systematic way.

Last year, Helen was able to bring in a full-time staff member to take on that role, and recommends that any membership organisation seeking to help shape legislation or influence politicians in a deeper way than perhaps they are now, consider taking on a dedicated resource.

“Just to keep up with MPs is a full-time job, they change so quickly. Having someone who can get to know their team members, and get to know what is important to the different political parties at the time is really valuable. Certainly in the next 18 months, ahead of the general election, if you have the ability to invest, do.”

If that approach isn’t affordable, Helen suggests taking advantage of any other networks available to you. In the case of Nautilus, Maritime UK is the industry organisation which provides resources and people to complement Nautilus’ own lobbying work.

To read about Nautilus International’s campaign to raise public awareness about the summary dismissal of P&O Ferries workers in March 2022, click here.