Singapore offers a Collaborative Way to Deal with a Collective Crisis, says Stephen Cotton

  • Post published:16 February 2022

The coronavirus pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on maritime union leaders whose priority is to look after seafarers’ welfare.

In the face of the unprecedented crisis, unions like SMOU have “performed magnificently”, said Stephen Cotton, the General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

“Whether they be looking after the seafarers on board or assuring the families, the bottom-line is seafarers unions have really responded to their membership challenge.”

In an interview with SeaVoices held onsite at the Wavelink Building, Stephen Cotton underscored the fact that seafarers have kept the world going. In spite of the pandemic, seafarers played the critical role of ensuring that essential food, fuel, medicines and medical equipment can get to where they are needed.

As frontline workers, seafarers face a “massive sense of insecurity” due to extended employment agreements, extended working hours, and the uncertainty over when they will be able to return home to their loved ones.

SMOU has to deal with the massive responsibility of understanding the plight of the seafarers; servicing their members “at the highest order”; and engaging in a tripartite “collaborative way to deal with a collective crisis”, Stephen Cotton commented.

Describing Singapore as a critical maritime leadership country, he pointed out the nation’s tripartite model provides an opportunity to have a conversation in a different way. And such a conversation led to ITF, International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC) and International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) contributing to the Singapore Shipping Tripartite Alliance Resilience (SG-STAR) Fund, making the effort the first global tripartite initiative to facilitate safe crew changes.

The SG-STAR Fund is set up by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), Singapore Shipping Association (SSA), Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union (SMOU), and Singapore Organisation of Seamen (SOS) to upstream the movement of seafarers.

“We saw Singapore as one of the more progressive maritime countries who wanted to take responsibility in a moment of a very challenging global leadership. My most frustrating part is, despite many meetings with governments, despite the common sense position that none of our societies can survive without the global supply chain and the seafarer, truck driver, warehouse worker, the rules were still being made to make it nearly impossible to move people around. For us, the STAR Fund is a massive learning curve that took incredible hard work.”

Stephen Cotton is quick to add that though “one size doesn’t fit all”, the message sent out to the world is—if a country like Singapore is taking responsibility, then you should all be moving too.

Mr Stephen Cotton and Ms Mary Liew at the SMOU-ITF meeting in 2018 at the SMOU Office Boardroom

“I know very well that Mary Liew had to use all of her diplomatic skills to get something like the STAR Fund off the ground. She leads NTUC, which is an influential position for a boss of a seafarers union to have, particularly in a country like Singapore. She is very charming, but she’s also quite tough to hold accountable different government agencies to make sure they understood the critical role Singapore plays in the global supply chain.”

“If you want to keep the reputation for being the global leading logistics country, then you have to make that difficult decision. If you don’t put seafarers and transport workers at the front end, you’re going to be making the wrong decision.”

Stephen Cotton made special mention of the “three powerful women”, referring to Sister Mary, SSA President Caroline Yang and MPA CE Quah Ley Hoon, who contributed to Singapore making the right decision in recognising seafarers as frontline workers. Though there is still work to be done to make crew change a “little less bureaucratic”, the numbers are beginning to show that there is indeed a movement of crew.

What they and Singapore offered to the world in crisis is lessons about collaboration.

Stephen Cotton also acknowledged that the relevance of the supply chain has come to the forefront of global national media in a way it has never been seen before. The pandemic highlighted the importance of supply chain in the fragmented nature of shipping. This opened up an opportunity to strengthen the transport workers unions’ position in society; improve the lot of seafarers and other supply chain workers; and collaborate with shipowners and government agencies.

Describing himself as a “cynical optimist”, Stephen Cotton also pointed out that we can seize the opportunity to “make our industry more resilient”. “We have to continue to lobby tirelessly to challenge employers and governments to recognise what has always been very transparent—­­transport workers may not be the most glamorous or the highest paid in our societies. But the moment you stop delivering masks, food, medical equipment, safety equipment, then our society starts to crumble.”

Seafarers must be designated as keyworkers is a powerful message that all of us will continue to sound out loud.