Relentless advocacy, support for seafarers’ interests 

Being an International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Governing Body (GB)’s deputy member is no simple commission. “I deliberate over ILO policies, legal and institutional matters,” Mary Liew started. “We also review cases lodged against the Governments for possible further actions, such as tripartite contact missions and technical assistance.”

Mary Liew, deputy member, ILO GB and general secretary of SMOU. She is also president of National Trades Union Congress.

The ILO is the sole tripartite United Nations agency since 1919. It gathers governments, employers and workers of 187 Member States, to set labor standards, develop policies and conceptualize programs to promote decent work for all women and men.

Mary travels globally in this capacity three times a year for around two weeks each in March, October and June. 

At the time of interview, she was in Geneva preparing for the International Labor Conference (ILC) which she attends every June to “discuss major international labor issues, including introducing new ILO standards,” she shared. 

“As the Singapore Worker’s Delegate and Singapore’s National Trades Union Congress’ (SNTUC) President, I will share NTUC’s work during the plenary debate on the ILO’s Director-General’s Report for that particular ILC.”

If that is not impressive enough, Mary is also the general secretary of Singapore Maritime Officers’ Union (SMOU) and elected as vice president of the International Transport Workers’ Federation where she has spoken on specific issues pertaining to the maritime sector. 

The SMOU was established in 1951 to promote healthy industrial relations among seafarers (members) and their employers, the ship-owners and ship-management companies, and the government. This is accomplished through the strong tripartite relationships with the local, regional and international maritime community. Presently, SMOU boasts more than 32,000 members.

Having so much on her plate, it is natural to wonder how she excels in a male-dominated industry. “The SMOU Core Values are deeply ingrained in me from the moment I joined the union,” Mary firmly stated. 

“Professionalism is quintessential because it means I  value meritocracy, and it is especially important that women in the maritime industry are given opportunities through their own merit.”

She added that to earn trust and respect from the industry, there must be a level playing field where men or women come together as a team to tackle challenges and transform crises into opportunities.

Secondly, Mary upholds integrity to earn the trust and respect of her counterparts and subordinates. “If you believe in what you do and hold these principles with steadfastness and consistency, the result will always be (others’) trust in what you do.”

And some of these problems seafarers face are not easy ones to simply follow the captain blindly by faith. For example, there is an unspoken underbelly of errant practices and unhealthy pressure to circumvent laws in the industry. 

When asked about one of the more distressing incidents that members have faced, she shared that there were many cases of seafarers being abandoned by their shipping companies. 

“The financial security requirement under the Maritime Labor Convention alleviates part of the uncertainty facing seafarers in terms of wages, but there is no positive outcome when you have been abandoned in a foreign land not knowing when you will be sent home or if you can even get off the ship,” Mary explained. 

Compounding the distress, the social issues caused by the delays in repatriating these seafarers are plenty. 

“There may be relatives of these seafarers who require urgent medical attention. Or family members who rely entirely on the seafarer’s income to survive,” she said. “Due to these unfortunate situations, the seafarers’ mental health suffers adversely and desperate to get vessels to shore, they risk being persecuted for illegal entry.” 

“Such practices unfairly penalize seafarers who are just doing their job – bringing various goods around the world for our convenience at their detriment because of irresponsible shipowners.”

Therefore, the ILO-IMO (International Maritime Organization) has adopted guidelines on seafarer abandonment which spells out clearly the obligations of shipowners, flag states, port states and seafarer organizations. 

“The procedures also call for the development of national Standard Operating Procedures to explicitly define the liabilities and obligations of the competent authority,” Mary detailed. 

In addition, she believes to sufficiently protect their welfare and livelihoods, skills development and training will be key for the seafarers. 

“We will advocate for our training arm, Wavelink Maritime Institute (WMI), to work with relevant organizations on how we can train our seafarers so that they are part of the entire shift towards a more sustainable industry.

“When it comes to the mental health toll plaguing seafarers, the WeCare mental well-being program, a collaboration between the Mission to Seafarers and SMOU, provides advice and resources on how to detect such issues on board and how ship managers can help. It is currently hosted by our training arm, WMI. 

“It is also useful for maritime workers to have the mental fortitude to adapt to the uncertainties of the future.”

At the end of the day, Mary holds fast to the belief that the maritime industry is thriving in Singapore and progressing steadfastly because “our key ingredient for success is Tripartism.” 

“Our approach to identifying future skills for seafarers is through the refreshed Industry Transformation Map (ITM) for the sea transport sector. We have also set up the Maritime Industry Tripartite Transformation Committee (MITTC) made up of unions, businesses and companies to oversee the implementation of the ITM,” she elaborated. 

As Mary continues to captain this ship as the general secretary of SMOU, as well as being a female leader, she affirmed that she plans to continue to be actively involved in the Maritime Port Authority Board, representing the interests of seafarers, including women seafarers.Photo credit: iStock/imtmphoto. 

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