TL;DR – It certainly isn’t easy, but someone has to do it.
With only a few years of union leadership under his belt, it certainly came as a surprise that Mohammad Hasrul Passarebu Bin Daud had been through so many situations that many more experienced union leaders had never come across.
I asked the 35-year old avid adventurer and union leader at Young United Workers of Petroleum Industry (UWPI) if he would spare an hour of his time for a quick chat. That chat soon became the stuff of movies, as he filled me in on union stories to the tune of oil tank fires, leukaemia and company liquidation.
The day 50 workers lost their livelihood
Hasrul shared with me how he felt when he had to step up as a union leader when in 2013, the branch chairman of his union, Chemical Industries Employees’ Union (CIEU) was retrenched, which left them with no union representation. His tone of voice betrayed the strong emotions he felt during that period of time when the company he was at, Perstop, was undergoing liquidation with over 50 workers bound to lose their jobs, most of whom had worked there for a significant part of their lives.
“When they announced the liquidation and you see your seniors crying because they have worked there 16 years and have nowhere else to go, you also feel like crying.”
He described the sense of despair and sombre mood that was palpable as workers were not even sure if they should be coming to work every day as they were not certain that they would even be paid. Retrenchment benefits were out of the question for a company going through liquidation because they could not keep up with the cost of doing business. Hasrul had to ask his union members to trust him and keep coming to work as he fought hard for them to get their dues.
Being ever so resourceful, Hasrul and the then CIEU Assistant Executive Secretary Azarudin, even went to Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) to try and reach the parent company in Sweden. He told of the immense relief he felt when the company announced they would pay the workers their wages for the month, knowing that as a union leader, he came through for the union members who relied on him.
But Hasrul didn’t stop there. At a troubling time when he had to worry about his own livelihood, he took it upon himself to call the HR departments of various companies in the same industry to ask them whether they were looking to hire, recommending his fellow union members for jobs. He even dished out tips to seniors who needed advice on job interviews and spent time helping members with their resumes.
20 April 2016: Oil tank burst into flames
Newspaper headlines described the fire as “massive” as an oil tank 40m in diameter and 20m in height burst into flames. The oil tank contained light crude oil and the prolonged operation took over 150 personnel and 5 hours to quell as the intense heat caused the tank to fold and buckle under its weight.
Hasrul recounted that fateful day with the incident occurring during his shift. He was part of the in-house company emergency response team (CERT) and had to fight the fire alongside staff who were also relatively new to the plant. They were already fighting the fire using ground water monitors in an attempt to contain the blaze before the SCDF arrived on the scene.
In the aftermath, morale amongst staff was low and many “lost hope” kick-starting operations in the plant again. Hasrul once again found himself in a position where he had to steel himself, show strength and continually encourage his fellow United Workers of Petroleum Industry (UWPI) union members during the stop-work order.
The company eventually came through and was bought out by a larger entity.
Fighting alongside a union member with leukaemia
At one point in our chat, Hasrul opened up to me about a particularly poignant time when he was helping one of his union members who was diagnosed with leukemia. His eyes welled up as he told of how he received a call from his member on the eve of Christmas. Hasrul was the first person the member had called to break the bad news to. The member who contracted leukemia was barely in his mid-20s and had just gotten married.
Hasrul’s priority at that point was to do whatever he could to help his member in his leukemia battle. In negotiations with the Head of Human Resources, Hasrul explained that in such instances, the HR best practice was to offer the staff 6 months of full pay, 6 months of half pay and 6 months of no pay while they undergo treatment. In fact, Hasrul managed to get the member an additional 6 months of full pay.
The union was also able to help the member get his annual bonus even while he was seeking treatment and raised nearly $6,000 through donations to help him with his medical costs.
Even though this was over two years ago, I could still sense Hasrul’s heavy heart when he recounted the incident as he still carries that burden for his member, wishing he could have done even more.
A union leader through and through
As we wrapped up an emotionally-charged chat, I thanked Hasrul for his candid sharing and applauded him for giving me an insight into the struggles and joys of being a union leader. Hasrul checked his watch and I asked if he’s rushing off anywhere. He turns to me and chuckles “I actually have no free time. I’m off to meet another member to discuss some work issues.”
That, to me, encapsulated him as a union leader, always accommodating towards his members’ needs at the expense of his own time. I realised the strength of character that it takes to be a union leader, the patience it requires to journey alongside members through ups and downs and the resourcefulness and tenacity one has to possess to fight for their best interests.
It certainly isn’t easy, but someone has to do it.