‘We don’t have a future’ – Hanjin crews return to uncertain fate
“Hanjin is like a family,” says the first officer, slowly choosing his words. “But now,” he hesitates, “it looks like we’ve lost our family.”
We are standing on board one of Hanjin’s vessels. It’s a huge ship, and the officer is second-in-command.
He stares past me, for a moment lost in thought, an empty gaze across the hundreds of metres of containers and steel hull below.
He quickly snaps out of it. “Come this way please.”
We step inside, onto the bridge. If the engine room down below is the heart of this container giant, then up here is where its brains are. Powered down though, long rows of pale grey screens and control boards leave a silence interrupted only by our footsteps.
The ship is docked in Singapore, finally. It’s the first time in weeks it has been towed up alongside a pier. Hanjin Shipping went bankrupt in August and since then its vessels have been stranded at sea, not allowed to call at any port.
It’s the biggest bust the shipping industry has ever seen. Only once the company came under bankruptcy protection were the vessels (around 100 of them) eventually allowed to go into ports around the globe.
Here in Singapore, a few of them have been trickling in over the past few days.
No names, no faces
We were able to make contact with one of them via another Hanjin captain back in South Korea. He got in touch with the first officer, who then talked the captain into allowing us on board – albeit reluctantly.
There was one condition though: no disclosure of the ship’s name, no photos, and no names of the crew members.
As we get on board, it’s the same young officer who greets us, no-one else is to be seen.
Throughout the hour we spend on the ship, we never get to see the captain to ask him why he didn’t want to let us on. After a few minutes with the first officer though, I’m beginning to see what might have been the reason.
He is shy. In fact, there’s a sense of suppressed embarrassment, shame almost, as we start talking to him. They are, after all, “the company that went bust”.
For years, the seamen have been proud to work for their company – only to suddenly find Hanjin now reduced to being the posterboy for their troubled industry.
‘We don’t have a future’
For most of us it is difficult to imagine what life in the shipping industry is like. After all, workers are often hundreds of miles away, out at sea.
Here, following the officer down the silent linoleum corridors of this Hanjin vessel, the troubles facing him and his colleagues are very real.
After the sudden shock of learning of their company’s bankruptcy, and the weeks spent out at sea, the sailors now face even more uncertainty.
“We don’t have a future,” the first officer says quietly. “When we arrive in Korea, we will stay maybe somewhere outside a port at sea. If the owner of the ship changes, then we will have to deliver this vessel. Then, we don’t know what will happen to us.”
A prestigious career
Our first officer politely guides us through the ship. We see the pantry, the kitchen, and the recreation room with its worn-out couches, a TV and PlayStation, and coffeemaker in the corner.
Long corridors lie empty, bar a few pairs of shoes neatly placed in front of the doors to some private cabins.
There are at least 10 floors, from deep down below deck to the bridge at the very top – where there’s a stunning view of countless containers that look like oversized Lego blocks, laid out from right below us to the very front of the ship.
From the pier, two gigantic cranes are slowly but steadily at work, picking up containers, lifting them as though they’re made of cardboard.
Not only do the crew know they will almost certainly be out of a job when they get to South Korea – it’s also clear that getting another job in the industry will be very difficult.
Like all the senior crew, the first officer has studied for four years at a maritime university. He has always been with Hanjin, starting out as a third officer and working his way up the ranks; the next step would have been captain. Captain of a proud vessel, with a prestigious company – a sought-after career.
Analysts I speak to tell me the shipping industry takes a very long-term perspective. It has always been a cyclical industry and therefore will eventually pick up again, they say.
But that is unlikely to be much consolation to the crew of this Hanjin ship as they embark on their journey back home towards an uncertain future.