S Korean seafaring union calls for whistleblower protection

The Sewol ferry, lifted from where it sank in the country's southwestern waters, is brought to port in Mokpo, South Korea. Credit: EPA Photo

A senior official of the South Korean seafaring union suggested having a whistleblowing channel for ferry crew staff to report safety regulation breaches.

Choi Soon, director of organisational negotiations at the Korea Special Seafarers’ Union, was speaking during a meeting with the special committee tasked to investigate lapses in the responses of the government to the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April 2014.

Sewol capsized during a routine Incheon-Jeju trip on 16 April 2014, leaving 304 people dead, of which 250 were high school students on an excursion to Jeju, a popular resort island.

Investigations later showed that Sewol was habitually overloaded and that the captain, Lee Joon-seok, who told passengers to remain in their cabins while he jumped into the water, was jailed for life for homicide.

In November 2019, the state prosecutor launched an investigation team to determine the exact cause of the Sewol sinking and probe alleged wrongdoing in rescue operations and how the government of former President Park Geun-hye handled the disaster.

Park was ousted from office in 2017 after an influence peddling scandal.

Choi said: “Seafarers are best aware of the serious flaws in ships but they may hesitate to report these to their employer or the authorities for fear of discrimination or termination of their employment. They may also fear that their reputation may be damaged and getting reemployed may be difficult.”

He believes that the seafarers would be able to report defects in peace if a Maritime Safety and Health Committee, composed of government officials, is set up to receive such reports.

He added that offering protection akin to that for whistleblowers in the public sector will reduce the possibility of reprisals and increase the likelihood of uncovering breaches.

Choi said: “In particular, it is likely that passenger ships with short-haul trips and owned by companies with small capital will encounter serious accidents due to the age of the vessels and frequent deployment.”