R. A. Hamid



R. A. Hamid (b. 1922/23, Kerala, India–d. 9 February 1982, Singapore)1 was a union activist noted for championing issues concerning seamen’s welfare. During the labour unrests of the 1960s, he participated in settling the dispute between the Singapore Harbour Board and the Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association over wages for the harbour workers. As president of the Singapore Organisation of Seamen in the 1970s and early ’80s, Hamid successfully negotiated for wage reforms for seamen, concluded collective agreements with various shipowners concerning the working conditions of seamen, and rallied the region’s maritime unions to fight against the discrimination of Asian seamen by the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

Early involvement in union activities
In July 1961, the Singapore trade union movement under the Singapore Trades Union Congress (STUC) was split into two opposing groups.2 One group became the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU), which was led by former People’s Action Party (PAP) left-wing members who had broken away to form the Barisan Sosialis political party. The other group became the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), which came under the leadership of PAP members.3 Singapore was also rocked by a spate of labour unrests at the start of the 1960s.4 The Singapore Harbour Board (SHB management felt the effects when it was drawn into a dispute with the Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association (SHBSA) over the call for higher wages and better working conditions for harbour workers.5 The SHBSA’s cause was championed by its secretary-general, Jamit Singh, a powerful and influential leader who was described as a “table thumper”.6 The association was very aggressive in its negotiation tactics and did not rule out industrial strikes to push through its demands.7 As the dispute remained unresolved, the government referred the matter to the Industrial Arbitration Court.8 When the dispute showed no signs of abating, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stepped in and issued an ultimatum to the SHBSA to settle the matter quickly.9


Hamid became actively involved in union activities as a member of the Singapore Harbour Board Employees’ Union, which later became defunct.10 During the SHB dispute, he was part of a 10-man negotiating team appointed by the SHBSA after a meeting with Lee, which was tasked to resolve the matter.11 Hamid went on to work closely with NTUC leader Devan Nair in the fight against left-wing unions in the 1960s.12

Champion of Singapore seafarers
Formation of the Singapore Organisation of Seamen

In 1964, Hamid was seconded to the Labour Research Unit (predecessor of the NTUC) as an industrial relations officer and served with the Singapore Manual and Mercantile Workers’ Union for two years. He then returned to the NTUC, where he renewed his interest in fighting for the cause of Singapore maritime employees.13

The Singapore National Seamen’s Union (SNSU) was dissolved in October 1963 as part of the government’s move to deregister left-wing trade unions affiliated with SATU.14 The loss of a collective voice made local seamen prone to exploitation by shipping companies and their agents. Their list of grievances included low wages compared with their European and British counterparts, unfair disciplinary action and poor working conditions. Singapore had become a paradise for both local and foreign shipping companies when the support for seamen became unavailable following the shutdown of the SNSU.15

The work of forming a new seamen’s union got underway in March 1971. With the support of the NTUC, a pro-tem committee started recruiting members and drafted the union constitution.16 Hamid helped to
form the new union, which was established on 30 October 1971 as the Singapore Organisation of Seamen (SOS). He served as president of the new union from 1971 until his death in 1982.17


Negotiating for wage reforms
Hamid’s first task as president of the SOS was to negotiate for wage reforms for all Singapore seamen. . He pushed for the signing of collective agreements with shipping companies that would set out the minimum wages and improve the working conditions of seamen.18 Initially, the shipowners refused to negotiate with the SOS because they did not consider themselves as employers of the seamen.19 The Singapore Maritime Employers Federation (SMEF) claimed that right instead, and in September 1972, began talks with the SOS on the salaries and welfare of seaman. However, these talks broke down due to the unsatisfactory wage increases offered by SMEF.20 Hamid objected to SMEF’s proposal to increase the seamen’s wage by only 20 percent after 10 years of wage stagnation. However, he left the door open for further negotiations with individual shipowners.21

As shipowners came into dispute with the SOS on what should be the standard wages for local seamen, Australian dock workers began to boycott Singapore-registered ships in 1972 for not having a collective agreement with their national seamen’s union.22 The boycott resulted in financial losses for the affected shipping companies and threatened to strain relations between Singapore and Australia.23 The Singapore government decided to intervene to resolve the seamen’s wage dispute.24 A board of inquiry was set up in February 1973 to look into disputes between maritime employers and local seamen, and hearings were conducted by the board two months later.25

In July 1974, the board of inquiry recommended that all seamen working on board foreign-going and home-trade vessels receive wage increases ranging from S$74 to S$258 and S$63 to S$115 a month respectively, to be backdated to 1 January 1974.26 The revised wage raised the pay of seamen by 50 percent,27 which was more than the 40-percent increase the SOS had initially recommended.28 The total back pay amounted to some S$3.5 million. The board’s decision was not only a motivation for local seamen, who started joining the SOS in droves, it was also described as “one of the biggest boosts to any union in recent times”.29

Pushing for collective agreements
While the compensation for seamen through new pay packages and back pay made good progress, many shipowners dragged their feet when it came to signing collective agreements with the SOS. The first collective agreement with the SOS was signed in September 1972 with Thome and Company and concerned some 80 seamen.30 By the end of 1972, the SOS had concluded seven agreements involving the crews of 12 ships.31 The slow take-up rate was attributed to many shipowners’ lack of recognition for the SOS as the collective bargaining body for local seamen.32 This reluctance in signing collective agreements landed shipping companies in trouble because some of their ships were grounded by industrial action in foreign ports for not having collective agreements with the maritime union in Singapore. Such incidents pressured many shipping companies to eventually sign collective agreements with the SOS.33 By the time of the union’s 11th anniversary in 1982, then Minister for Communications and Labour Ong Teng Cheong said that the SOS could take pride in its track record of signing collective agreements with 55 shipowners covering 145 ships manned by 2,500 seamen.34

Rallying Asian maritime unions

in 1979, the SOS faced its toughest challenge when it took on the London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) for what it saw as unfair practices. The ITF took industrial action at various international ports against Western vessels that did not pay their crew according to ITF’s rates. To avoid paying the high ITF rates, shipowners had resorted to the “flag of convenience” policy that allowed them to hire crew of any nationality and enjoy savings from lower wages. The Western seamen’s unions in the ITF resorted to the boycott, which the ITF defended as a measure to get rid of low wages for all seamen. The move, however, caused thousands of Asian seamen to be priced out of their jobs. Singapore ships were not spared either, prompting Nair, then NTUC’s secretary-general, to label the ITF as “the new imperialist”. He saw the boycott as a form of protectionism to force Western shipping companies to deregister their ships from the developing countries and re-register them in their countries of origin.35 Nair thus proposed creating an Asian branch of the ITF as a way for Asian countries to gain more leverage within the organisation.36

A pro-tem Asian Seafarers’ Secretariat, based in Singapore, was subsequently formed in April 1979 to lobby for the creation of an Asian regional organisation within the ITF.37 As chairman of the secretariat, Hamid represented the Asian maritime unions in pushing for greater representation in the ITF during a conference convened by the federation in Hong Kong in March 1980.38

The ITF was not swayed by the secretariat’s hard lobbying. Then general-secretary of the ITF, Harold Lewis, also took issue with Hamid’s intrusion into the organisation’s affairs, following a decision by Asian maritime unions to boycott a specially convened ITF meeting in Stockholm, Sweden.39 Undeterred, Hamid presented the case for an Asian regional organisation of the ITF at the organisation’s 33rd World Congress in the United States in July 1980.40 The Asian Regional Committee of the ITF was finally approved at the congress as a result of the lobbying initiatives by the Asian Seafarers’ Secretariat headed by Hamid.41 Other breakthroughs for Asian seafarers at the congress included the election of the Korea Seamen’s Union into the ITF board, the third Asian country be elected after Japan and Australia, and the adoption of a separate minimum wage rate for Asian seamen.42 Hamid subsequently served as a member of the Asian Seafarers’ Regional Committee and the Committee of the ITF Seafarers’ Section. He was also Singapore’s seafarers’ representative on the ITF Fair Practices Committee.43

Death
On 9 February 1982, Hamid suffered a heart attack at his home and passed away at the age of 59. Prominent leaders who paid their respects at his residence included Nair, who was then president of Singapore, and then NTUC Secretary-General Lim Chee Onn. The SOS said that the seafarers had lost a “champion”, “a beacon of hope” and an “aspiration to seamen”. Hamid’s indomitable spirit in fighting for the welfare of seamen had moved him to serve with the SOS since its inception, where “he was held in high esteem for his integrity and unswerving commitment to seafarers”. Shipping executives who faced him at the negotiation table also knew him as a “relentless but fair fighter”. His remains were laid to rest at the Pusara Aman Muslim cemetery.44

Awards and appointments
In May 1979, Hamid’s grassroots experience and leadership in the trade union movement led to his election into the NTUC 21-member central committee, the organisation’s highest-ranking body.45 In December the same year, Hamid was again honoured when he became one of the first recipients of the newly introduced NTUC Long Service Award for over 15 years of service.46

Hamid also served as a member of the National Maritime Board (1975–77) and of the employee panel of the Industrial Arbitration Court.47

Posthumous tributes

The seafarers’ gratitude towards Hamid’s dedication continued after his death. In 1983, the SOS set up a Maritime Library Section in the NTUC Research Unit Library in memory of its late president. The S$20,000 library was initiated by Lim Chee Onn, who also donated his personal collection of maritime books. The opening of the library was officiated by Hamid’s widow, Helena Abdullah, on 18 May 1983.48

In 1995, the SOS commemorated 15 former leaders to mark its 25th anniversary. Hamid was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Award for his relentless pursuit of minimum wages and collective agreements to improve the working conditions of seamen.49



Author
Nor Afidah Abdul Rahman




References
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2. Now a split in T.U.C. (1961, July 18). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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4. Fernandez, M., & Loh, K. S. (2008). The left-wing trade unions in Singapore, 1945–1970. In M. D. Barr & C. A. Trocki. (Eds.), Paths not taken: Political pluralism in post-war Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 216. (Call no.: RSING 959.5705 PAT-[HIS]); Nathan, S. R. (2010). Why am I here? Overcoming hardships of local seafarers. Singapore: Centre for Maritime Studies, National University of Singapore, pp. 106–107, 109. (Call no.: RSING 331.7613875095957 NAT)
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35. Mohan, B. (1979, March 29). What makes the ITF today a force to be reckoned with …. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The double standards of ITF: Devan. (1979, April 29). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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42. ITF agrees to separate rates for Asian crews. (1980, August 5). The Business Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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44. Singapore Organisation of Seamen. (1981, October/1982, March). Obituary. Samudra: Newsletter of the Singapore Organisation of Seamen. Singapore: SOS, pp. 1, 3. (Call no.: RSING 623.880605957 S); President pays last respects to veteran unionist. (1982, February 10). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
45. Joseph, G. (1979, May 28). Unionists are now for taking in pros and technocrats. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
46. 3 who laboured for NTUC get new award. (1979, December 14). New Nation, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
47. Singapore Organisation of Seamen. (1981, October–1982, March). Obituary. Samudra: Newsletter of the Singapore Organisation of Seamen. Singapore: SOS, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 623.880605957 S)
48. Singapore Organisation of Seamen. (1983, January–June). Obituary. Samudra: Newsletter of the Singapore Organisation of Seamen. Singapore: SOS, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 623.880605957 S).
49. Seamen gather to salute ex-union leaders. (1995, October 8). The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2 February 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

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