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13 Mar 2023
6 mins
Corridors of Change: SMOU’s COVID-19 Story

In the eighth and final instalment of a series commemorating the Union’s 70th anniversary, read about how SMOU and its partners uplifted the lives of seafarers during the pandemic. 

Like a scene from a sci-fi movie, men dressed from top to toe in one-piece garments walk briskly through ports of call while being scanned by infrared cameras. They are not quite going to outer space, but taking part in a crew change exercise.

Finally, it is their turn to disembark the ship they have been on for months, or to work on a ship having been jobless onshore.

While the pandemic has wreaked economies and registered a worldwide death toll in the millions, it has also been felt deeply at sea, with tens of thousands of seamen stranded on ships – unable to leave because of lockdowns imposed at ports and borders.

This has been the impact of COVID-19 on many of the world’s 1.6 million seafarers, who continue to labour to ensure supply lines at sea are uninterrupted.

During this unprecedented time, Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union (SMOU) continues to look out for every member – creating safe “corridors” for crew changes to take place, providing financial support for seamen trapped onshore without an income, and taking care of mental health concerns.


The effort to set up safe “corridors” was massive, requiring cooperation across the world. But it has proved a success, with more than 220,000 crew changes since March 2020.

To fund safe crew change practices, a S$1 million fund, known as the Singapore Shipping Tripartite Alliance Resistance (SG-STAR) Fund, was launched in August 2020. It was set up by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), SMOU, Singapore Shipping Association (SSA) and Singapore Organisation of Seamen (SOS).

Formation of the SG-STAR Fund by tripartite partners (Photo credit: MPA)

The Fund – a tripartite initiative – supports seafarer-supplying countries such as the Philippines to achieve best practices for crew changes.

A month later, from September 2020, global partners such as the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC), and the International Chamber of Shipping came onboard the Fund. The ITF and IMEC jointly contributed US$500,000. 

The SFTF conducting a virtual session to brief shipping companies about initiatives from the SG-STAR Fund
Tripartite partners witnessing one of the first batches of international seafarers receiving vaccination under Singapore’s Sea Crew Vaccination (SEAVAX) initiative

The Fund is managed by a taskforce, called the SG-STAR Fund Taskforce (SFTF). It works with seafarer-supplying countries on issues such as the accreditation of quarantine and isolation facilities, COVID-19 testing certification, digital solutions for tracking crew change and training sessions for seafarers to understand crew change procedures.

To get it right, SMOU had to meet tripartite partners and seafarers to determine the best approach, and conduct phone surveys with companies to find out what nationalities were on board each ship and how many would be signing on or off.

Tripartite partners sending off one of the first batches of seafarer crew change at the Singapore Port

These culminated in the COVID-19 Singapore Crew Change Guidebook, which laid out protocols for safe crew changes. It alleviated the pressure on SMOU, which for months had to field incessant calls from shipping companies enquiring about crew change procedures.

The CrewSafe audit programme was also set up by the SG-Star Fund Taskforce in December 2020. SMOU staff helped shape the auditing process of quarantine and medical facilities in crew-supplying nations, by verifying if their practices met Singapore requirements.

This enabled the white-listing of legitimate clinics for testing, weeding out those offering bogus negative certificates. SMOU’s contacts proved crucial in sifting out the bad from the good clinics as Union staff worked with auditors in seafarer-supplying countries to conduct assessments based on the given criteria.

These have served as reference guidelines for member states at the International Maritime Organization.

Focus on Financial and mental well-being

As the pandemic raged on, SMOU also paid attention to the financial welfare of its members.

While COVID-19 relief packages offered by the government were able to help many shore-based workers, seafarers seemed to fall through the cracks due to the contractual nature of their work. This meant they could not qualify for many of the help schemes.

Tripartism came to the rescue. MPA, SMOU and SOS collaborated to introduce the Seafarers Relief Package (SRP) in April 2020, providing up to $800 a month for Singaporean seafarers unable to secure shipboard employment.

One of the beneficiaries was Third Officer Mohamed Farhan bin Mohamed Fadillah, who received close to $2,000 over three months when he did not have any income.

“I was on board another vessel and was supposed to sign off in March (2021), but I could only get back a month later because both China and New Zealand (NZ) did not have any flights to Singapore,” he told SeaVoices in November 2021.

His Burmese vessel captain was stranded far longer, sailing for a year without being able to leave the ship because of the pandemic and the political situation in Myanmar.

Such situations have highlighted another concern: The mental health of seafarers when they are stranded at sea without family support.

Mental wellness webinar conducted with overseas seafarers

SMOU sought to address mental wellness issues by organising webinars to give seafarers practical advice and reduce the stigma around these issues. Together with Wavelink Maritime Institute, the Union collaborated with the Maritime Union of India in September 2021 to conduct a mental wellness webinar for more than 400 Indian seafarers. Two other such webinars were conducted with the Associated Marine Officers’ and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines, and Marine Transport Workers’ Trade Union of Ukraine as well.

As the year came to a close, SMOU also hosted the Seafarers Virtual Year End Party, which saw more than 400 seafarers tune in from more than 15 countries. Kickstarted by SMOU General Secretary Mary Liew with a welcome speech as she thanked them for their tireless work, the event featured a live band, interactive games and a lucky draw.

These initiatives aim to boost the morale of seafarers worldwide, many of whom faced challenging times at sea during the pandemic.

For one of them, the impending birth of his child kept him going. But he was devastated when he learnt that his wife had a stillborn. Despite the complex crew change processes, SMOU went the distance to ensure the member got home as soon as possible.

For the Union, these are the stories that have given it purpose – helping seafarers ride out rocky waters into safe harbour. While times and trends have changed and new challenges such as COVID-19 continue to emerge, this purpose remains the same over the past 70 years and beyond: to safeguard the interest and well-being of seafarers.