The Journeys of Seafarers


In the last few years, I have met several seafarers. They leave Singapore for months on their voyages across the sea, fulfilling different duties on board their ships.

One thing they have in common – a quiet tenacity to deal with issues that they are thrust into, whether it is a ship emergency, labour issues or entering uncharted situations.

Seafarers are independent, adventurous, resilient and resourceful. At the same time, seafarers are also at the mercy of the seas, weather, equipment, pirates, international strife, and employers, which aren’t within their individual capacity and capability to control.

Being far away from home, in foreign waters, subject to foreign laws, it is a comfort knowing seafarers have a labour movement looking after their interests.

Who looks after seafarers?

Seafarers who join unions like the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union (SMOU) are represented by the union, which negotiates Collective Agreements with shipping companies.

These Collective Agreements are legal documents stating employment terms and conditions, which aim to improve the wages and working conditions of over 32,000 union members under SMOU.

To increase the collective bargaining power for transport workers, SMOU and the Singapore Organisation of Seamen or SOS, with several other transport unions in Singapore, are part of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

The ITF comprises of 670 trade unions in 140 countries representing almost 20 million transport workers.

At each level, seafarers (aka employees) are represented in the maritime industry (via SMOU and SOS), national level (via NTUC) and internationally (via ITF). (Source: SMOU)

ITF as a global labour movement has also successfully influenced MNCs like DHL, Qatar Airways and Maersk to improve labour rights for transport workers.

Why do we need a global labour movement for transport workers?

There are multinationals operating in multiple countries, where a single country’s trade union(s) may not have the sufficient bargaining power to influence the labour rights of their members who work overseas.

In one example, a Singaporean seafarer, Captain Ian Chan, unfortunately died due to a heart attack in Panama while he was onboard a Hong Kong vessel.

The late Captain Ian Chan left behind his wife, two young children, and an elderly mother. He was the sole breadwinner, but his company did not compensate his family. (Source:

SMOU learnt that its sister unions in Hong Kong have a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the vessel he was captaining, and the unions worked collectively to negotiate a US$200,000 payout for his family.

Unions across borders

ITF has a pool of inspectors located in various countries to check whether companies have breached their contract with workers, such as having unpaid wages or poor working conditions.

In just one phone call, unions can alert fellow inspectors in other countries to detain ships if they have received complaints from union members of labour breaches.

Sometimes there are ships that can be stuck for months, such as the Hanjin Rome that was one of 14 Hanjin vessels stranded in Singapore after its parent company filed for bankruptcy.

Stranded staff of Hanjin Rome could not leave their ship as Hanjin had not settled its financial woes (Source: BBC)

While the Hanjin Rome was arrested, SMOU and its sister union the Federation of Korean Seafarers Union (FKSU) assisted the crew in assessing their condition. The unions provided food and supplies, helped the crew get their unpaid wages and settled their preparations to go home.

Are there still good careers in the maritime industry?

In this age of disruption, there are still talents needed in the maritime industry. Typically, aspiring seafarers graduate with a diploma and can rise through the ranks from a cadet officer to become a captain.

Wage and career progression for seafarers (Source: SMOU)

The maritime industry has a Tripartite Nautical Training Award (TNTA) which allows mid-career switchers like Redzwan have a seafaring career. SMOU will also have a family engagement talk with aspiring seafarers and families to explain what a seafaring career is like and address their concerns.

Source: Seavoices

SMOU has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the formation of the Industry Collaboration Training Committee (CTC) with maritime tripartite partners MPA, Singapore Maritime Employers Federation (SMEF) representing 17 employers, and SOS.

The MOU on this CTC will see the commitment of the partners to continue developing training initiatives and cultivate a spirit of learning to prepare a future-ready workforce.

Seafarers who want to stay close to home can choose shore-based jobs, such as working in a shipping company or as a harbour pilot in PSA, or captaining a ship doing shore operations such as bringing tankers from nearby waters to the Singapore port.

Trainees can learn new skills in SMOU’s maritime simulation centre, using a 240-degree Full Mission Bridge Simulator, Engine Room Simulator, Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) and Liquid Cargo Handling Simulator (LCHS). (Source: SMOU)

Sometimes seafarers lose their jobs when their companies fold or when they are retrenched.

To help these displaced seafarers, SMOU acts as their surrogate employer so they can attend training to gain new skills and find new jobs.

Via this arrangement, seafarers can have up to 70% of their course fees subsidised by MPA’s Maritime Cluster Fund (MCF) as well as receive training subsidies from SMOU.

Better welfare for seafarers and families

Seafarers often spend months away from home, working hard to send money back to raise their families. The stress of working and worrying can take a toll on their physical and mental health.

In this year’s Day of the Seafarer, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has focused on stress and other issues affecting seafarers’ mental health.

What seafarers want (Source:

Among various initiatives to look after seafarers’ welfare, seafarers who call at PSA’s Pasir Panjang Terminal can access to a free, on-demand shuttle service to the Seacare Drop-In Centre For International Seafarers. This centre provides free WIFI and beverages and a place for seafarers to rest.

Seafarers who want a listening ear can tap on counselling services and pastoral care at mission centres in Singapore too.

To help seafarers’ families with education costs, children of low-income SMOU members also receive bursaries or scholarship awards. Last year, under a new category to help the families of late members, SMOU extended its Care Fund to include five children whose parents (who were SMOU members) had unfortunately passed away.

In 2019, SMOU adopted its first pre-school charity, My First Skool (MFS) Jalan Sultan Centre. SMOU has pledged a $200,000 donation to the Bright Horizons Fund (BHF) which helps vulnerable families with financial assistance, social support, learning and well-being programs for their children studying in My First Skool.

SMOU will also grant $300,000 to NTUC Eldercare Trust Fund to support the vulnerable and financially-needy residents at NTUC Nursing Home (Jurong West) by offsetting their nursing home fees.

What can you do for your fellow seafarer?

Although we may not come into contact with seafarers on a daily basis, let’s remember and appreciate our fellow workers who go out to sea, so that their loved ones can have a better life back home.

If you know a seafarer friend in distress or is looking for career advice, the following avenues of assistance may be useful:

Special thanks to the Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union for granting us this interview.

Featured photo: e2i

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