TL;DR – Two men and the stories of their lives.
Helping our Korean brothers at sea
Imagine this scene: You’re stuck out at sea in a container ship with 23 others.
You can’t get off the ship unless it’s an emergency and worse, you’re not sure when the ordeal will end.
Since 29 August 2016, their container ship Hanjin Rome has been placed under arrest by the Sheriff of the Supreme Court of Singapore within Singapore waters as its parent company, Hanjin Shipping in Busan, Korea had owed German shipowner Rickmers money. In early September, the company filed for bankruptcy after wallowing in a staggering US$5.4 billion (S$7.3 billion) debt.
The Federation of Korean Seafarers Union (FKSU) had approached the SMOU to assist in getting access to the ship to assess the condition of the workers.
I arrived at the Marina South Pier on a pouring afternoon together with some union representatives from Singapore and South Korea.
The rain was quite unrelenting and I was wondering if I would survive the ride on the launch boat in such conditions.
So after waiting for the rain to subside somewhat, we boarded the launch boat to head out to sea.
After about 20 minutes, we reached the huge ship and had to climb up the gangway which wasn’t quite difficult except that it was very slippery and any wrong move means you fall right into the water.
Before long we met with the Captain Mun Kwon-Do and 23 other officers and ratings (cooks, cleaners and oilers).
Watching him speak to union representatives, you can see that he still maintains a calm and cool composure even though he admits that no one on board the ship knows how long they will be stuck on board.
“Being at sea, even if we are anchored and not sailing, it is not that big of an issue because we are seamen. Seamen live and thrive at sea. But what would happen to our jobs if the company loses its vessels? What would happen to our livelihoods?”
At present, the company has apparently guaranteed Captain Mun and his crew wages for three months, September to December.
Life’s slightly easier for now, but still uncertain
I found out that actually life is much easier now that their ship is under arrest. Should food and water run out, Captain Mun secured food supplies for more than a month and there’s a water purification machine on board which converts seawater into clean water for consumption.
I learnt too that when a ship is arrested in Singapore water, the Sheriff’s office will also provide the necessary supplies for the crew when needed.
Unfortunately, none of the seamen, including Captain Mun, can disembark the ship at any time without the special permission of the Sheriff. Permission would likely be given only for medical emergencies.
Captain Mun is one such example, his grandmother is in critical condition in hospital in Busan, but yet he can’t leave the ship until the company assigns a new Captain to take over him.
Still uncertain when these men can see their families
The fate of Captain Mun and his crew remains unknown, even to this day. When will they get to go home, no one really knows.
Still, SMOU was glad it could help the FKSU to board the ship to meet with the affected seamen. Its spokesperson shared that it was the duty of SMOU to assist not only its members but international members of its sister unions as well.
In fact, it still continues to keep in close contact with the affected seamen on board to be updated on what’s going on on board.
Helping one of our own
On home soil, the SMOU also helps local members. An example would be that of the late Captain Ian Chan.
Captain Ian died of a heart attack along the Suez Canal in Panama in November 2014. A series of events saw the union assisting in helping his family getting a compensation payout of US$200,000 from an initial offer of US$40,000.
I was fortunate to meet Mrs Chan at the invitation of SMOU recently.
Arriving at her apartment, I see how her outgoing and hospitable character shines through. She pulls out cakes and biscuits for her guests before finally sitting down for the interview.
Suffice to say, she has moved on from the grieve and sorrow of her loss, after all, it’s been more than two years.
But she shares she still misses him every now and then when she sees complete families on the streets. Precious photographs of Captain Chan can still be found dotting the apartment.
In fact, she keeps photographs of her husband in her cellphone too. Here’s one of Captain Chan with his brothers.
But fortunately for her, the support of her friends, families and even colleague of her late husband kept her going and helped her move on from her difficult moment.
On top of that, SMOU, of which her husband was a member of constantly keeps in touch with her.
They regularly invite Mrs Chan and her family members for SMOU’s events.
In fact, this visit was also meant for union officials to catch up on her and to invite her to SMOU’s anniversary dinner.
“SMOU has been very kind and caring. They constantly ask if they are able to help me in any way and even offered to help if I ever needed a job,” says Mrs Chan.
You can see in her eyes the gratefulness for the help that the union has done in helping to get the compensation from the company.
“This (compensation) would not have come to me if he (her husband) was not a union member,” said Mrs Chan.
She has grown to learn the importance of being a union member. She shares,
“Even if you are not a ship worker…as long as you’re working, I feel that one should join the union… in the event an accident occurs… a good example would be what happened to my husband.”
Had the union not step in to help her, Mrs Chan shared that she would have approached a lawyer to help get compensation for her loss. So, it was in a way a fortunate thing for her as the union was able to mobilise the help of its sister union in Hong Kong to fight for a better and reasonable compensation which was similar to what Singapore-flagged ships would pay out.
All in all, you can tell that Mrs Chan is happy that she was assisted by the union, and is still very much considered a part of the union even if she does not work in the shipping industry.
My learning point?
Life’s unpredictable, at sea or otherwise, so seize every day!
And, don’t underestimate what the union can do.