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21 Jun 2021
6 mins
Faces of SMOU: Senior IRO Kelvin Lin

2020 was a tumultuous year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned everyday life topsy-turvy when people all over had to contend with a new normal of lockdowns, zoom meetings, mask rules, social distancing and economic crisis.

It has been a year to remember, but for SMOU Senior Industrial Relations Officer (IRO) Kelvin Lin, 39, it is one that he prefers to forget.

“2020 has been extremely taxing. I had many sleepless nights. My phone would not stop ringing. Round the clock, I received emails, texts and calls from anxious and desperate seafarers who were stranded in ports without wages or flights home. There were others who reported contract extensions without consent, basically forced to stay onboard and for a long period of time. The seafarers felt that their best chance of getting respite was in Singapore with our nation’s reputation as an International Maritime Centre,” he said. During the peak of COVID-19 period, SMOU handled almost over 200 cases of repatriation request, a 100% increase compared to previous year.

Kelvin bemoaned the fact that while seafarers have helped to keep the supply chain working and the global economy running throughout the pandemic by delivering vital goods, foods and medication, they were treated as non-essential workers by some governments who banned crew change. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimated that 400,000 seafarers were stuck at sea.

It was in such a time that Kelvin all the more saw this role as a Senior Industrial Relations Officer with SMOU as critical in making a difference in the seafarers’ welfare.

Kelvin Lin (left) delivering care bags for vessels who called at the Singapore port to thank them for their dedication and hard work to keep the supply chain moving during COVID-19 pandemic.

The indignation he felt about the crew change crisis gave him impetus to work out solutions under various circumstances – very often requiring him and the team at SMOU to work with the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) to render extra help to safeguard the health and safety of seafarers.

Kelvin would have joined the ranks of the seafaring community and gone out to sea too if his parents had given their support for him to enrol in the Tripartite Nautical Training Award programme six years ago. Instead, he did the next best thing – be an IRO with SMOU and see to it that seafarers are fairly treated at work.

First Foray into Maritime Industry

His foray into the maritime industry started when he joined MPA as a vessel traffic management officer where he was required to co-ordinate the movement of ships within the Singapore port. He subsequently got himself transferred to MPA’s Finance Department to learn and gain office experience. Looking back, these career choices became progressive steps towards reaching a goal – to make his life count in the maritime world.

During this stint at MPA, Kelvin had his first brush with union work which saw him gaining invaluable experience as MPA Branch Assistant Secretary of Amalgamated Union of Statutory Board (AUSBE), an affiliate of NTUC. His volunteer work included going to the ground to speak with members and negotiating with management for better shift allowance, career paths and staff benefits.

Kelvin’s work experience in MPA as a vessel traffic management officer and his involvement with the union prepared him well for his future with SMOU.

“Because of my stint at MPA, I know about port regulations and more. As a branch union leader at AUSBE, I learned about member engagement and collective agreement negotiation. When it comes to calculating owed wages, my accounting background comes in very handy,” Kelvin pointed out.

“I am most happy when I see seafarers getting their owed wages back before they sign off.”

Here is a peek at some of the cases recorded in Kelvin’s IR file.

First Ship Visit and US$220,000 Unpaid Wages Secured

Kelvin’s first ship visit left an indelible impression on him. Together with his colleague, SMOU Assistant General Secretary Gwee Guo Duan, he called on the 23 Indian crew onboard the arrested Malaysian flagged chemical tanker, Imbak. The crew members were owed more than seven months of wages.

“Typically, if an employee doesn’t get paid for a month, he can choose to walk out of his office. But as seafarers, they are stuck at sea with nowhere to go,” he said.

The vessel’s aircon compressor had broken down that day. So instead of the game room, also known as the social room which was air-conditioned, the six hour meeting onboard was carried out on the deck under the scorching heat.

All the discomfort and sweat were overshadowed by a greater joy that awaited. A sum totalling US$220,000 in unpaid wages was secured for the crew.

“The outcome of getting back the seafarers’ unpaid wages is very rewarding and satisfying,” Kelvin remarked.

Bringing Comfort to Grief-Stricken Crew

Recalling a case that broke his heart, Kelvin remembered the despondency of the six crew members who survived a vessel collision which claimed the lives of six of their other crew mates.

While the crew onboard the head-on vessel was left almost unscathed, half of the team onboard the crossing vessel lost their lives when the two vessels collided at the Batam Straits in 2018. The shipping company had turned to SMOU to help the seafarers who were rescued.

“We hosted the rescued seafarers at the Lighthouse Bistro and offered comfort and care. It was heart breaking to hear them talk about the crew fatalities. Though they were grateful that they survived the accident, they were grief-stricken that six of their fellow seafarers had lost their lives,” Kelvin said.

Don’t Jump Overboard!

Another memorable case involved an agitated junior engineer who threatened to jump overboard. He and his crew members were owed wages and the ship had been  arrested.

“Perhaps he wasn’t familiar with the idea of a ship arrest. The pressure of being owed wages and the fear of the unknown got the better of him,” Kelvin recalled.

Kelvin quickly calmed him down and firmly spelled out the consequences if he were to jump.

“I told him that he could be charged for destroying property and be jailed. He could also end up in the hospital. I also reminded him that he still had the company of his fellow seafarers and that SMOU was there for him.”

Kelvin’s cool headedness won the junior engineer over.

“It was a close shave,” he heaved a sigh of relief.

Such is the dynamic work life Kelvin leads as SMOU Senior IRO.

Till today, Kelvin continues to support the welfare of seafarers by organising a series of ship visits to show appreciation to seafarers working on board ships.