Before 1963 Singapore seamen
had too many trade unions, but during 1963-70
they had no trade union. Only the Seamen’s
Registry Board provided some protection against
dubious shipping management practices all these
The National Trades Union
Congress (NTUC) set up the Singapore
Organisation of Seamen (SOS) on 30 October 1971.
Singapore shipping companies had a bad
impression of previous seamen’s unions but the
NTUC helped to ensure all shipping companies
affiliated to the Singapore Maritime Employers’
Federation and the Singapore Shipping
Association supported the fledgling SOS.
Early on, the SOS had to meet
the challenge posed by the International
Transport Workers’ Federation’s world-wide
campaigns ostensibly against the exploitation of
seamen. To defuse the challenge, the SOS sought
to remedy the years of neglect when the wages
and working conditions of Singapore seamen
The SOS pushed for a Board of
Inquiry to be convened under the Industrial
Relations Act in 1973. A key recommendation of
the Board of Inquiry raised the wages of the
seamen and awarded back-wages totalling more
than $1 million.
However, the SOS had still to
settle the ITF’s challenge for the sake of the
Singapore seamen. Through affiliation to the ITF,
the SOS ensured world-wide validity for its
collective agreements with the shipping
companies. During 1979-1982, about 5,000
Singapore seamen worked on board ships covered
by the SOS’s collective agreements.
By 1982, SOS had a record
high of 7,500 members. Earlier in 1978, the SOS
had shifted from its one-room office in the
Trade Union House in Shenton Way to a suite of
offices in the nearby NTUC Trade Union Annex.
But the SOS’s niggling worry
was that the Singapore flag’s prevailing status
then as a flag of convenience (FOC) might
adversely affect both Singapore seamen and
ships. The NTUC, the Singapore Maritime
Officers’ Union (also ITF affiliate) and the SOS
hosted two conferences of Asian seafarers’
unions in Singapore in 1979 to unite and
strengthen the Asian seafarers’ voice in ITF
forums. Subsequently, a Singapore ITF
Affiliates’ representative (Mr Lim Boon Heng)
was elected to the ITF Executive Board for the
During 1983-87, cyclical
recession in the shipping industry resulted in
many Singapore seamen losing their jobs. This in
turn led to a fall in the SOS’s membership.
Meanwhile the SOS shifted to its newly acquired
premises in Midlink Plaza in Middle Road in
Faced with Singapore seamen’s
dismal future employment prospects, the SOS
implemented several measures during 1985-1989 to
enhance the employability of Singapore seamen.
They included a job enlargement scheme, a wage
freeze, a manning reduction and a mixed
Singaporean-foreign crew manning policy.
On 1 January 1989, the ITF
delisted the Singapore as a FOC. Later that
year, the SOS amended its constitution to enable
foreign seamen to become participating members.
However, while the membership figures of the SOS
seemed healthy, Singapore seamen continued to be
displaced from sea jobs. The SOS consequently
introduced a training grant scheme with an
annual budget of $250,000 to retrain jobless
seamen for shore jobs. Cost wise, foreign seamen
have been too competitive for sea jobs.
Proactively to help its
members, the SOS, with the NTUC, founded the
Seacare Co-operative Ltd in May 1994 with the
mission “…to help and benefit Singapore seamen
and their families through more work
opportunities and appropriate investment
projects”. Seacare soon proved its worth by
helping seamen as workers and as consumers.
The success of Seacare led to
the purchase of the 9-storey Seacare Building in
Chin Swee Road in 2000 to serve as, among other
things, the SOS’s headquarters. By 2005, Seacare
has blossomed into the Seacare Group with two
holding companies, Seacare Holdings and Seacare
Foundation, and twelve subsidiary/associate
companies. During 2001-5, the Group posted a
yearly turnover of more than $23 million and
yearly profit-before-tax of $1 million, with a
yearly staff strength of 1,000-plus.
Presently, the SOS serves
20,000 members, many of whom foreign seamen,
while Seacare caters to, among others,
ex-Singapore seamen as members, workers or