April 25th 2018

The stand-off over safety risks on the expanded Panama Canal has entered a new phase following the unilateral decision by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) to eliminate one deckhand aboard lead tugs working in the expanded locks.

ACP accompanied the move with threats to dismiss tug captains who are protesting the safety risks of the reduction in crew size and forced overtime on the canal.

The MM&P affiliate Union de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta (UCOC) represents about 200 canal tug captains and associated vessel personnel.

International labor organizations, including the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the Nautilus Federation, have stepped into the fray in support of MM&P and its affiliate union.

The ITF Executive Board, which met in London on April 19-20, has lodged a complaint with the International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association.

The ILO has jurisdiction to intervene in cases of overt anti-labor actions by governments that are signatories to the ILO Convention. Its members are governments, labor and management with equal representation.

MM&P President Don Marcus said the ACP’s decision to eliminate a deckhand from the crew complement aboard the lead tugs in the locks poses serious safety risks.

“Our captains are protesting due to the extremely hazardous nature of the lead tug operation, where three deckhands are required: one to operate the tug’s winch and two to handle two towing lines or a towing bridle from the tug to the ship,” he said.

Marcus says that reducing the size of the crew “in the most challenging and dangerous phase of the expanded locks operation is irresponsible.”

He notes that a deckhand was killed on the canal in November 2017, adding that “the arbitrary and unconscionable action by the ACP will lead to more tragedy.”

“There is consistent evidence to show the very high incidence of death and injuries amongst seafarers associated with the handling of lines and ropes,” agrees Nautilus Federation President Mark Dickinson.

In an April 23 letter to the ACP, he said “reduced manning will exacerbate fatigue and excessive working hour problems” on the canal, giving rise to more risks.

The ITF, for its part, said it has received reports of excessive overtime being demanded of tug captains and deckhands.

“The ITF has been provided evidence that shows the shifts are consistently being prolonged far beyond the agreed hours of work,” wrote ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton in an April 23 letter to ACP Chief Executive Officer Jorge L. Quijano.

“According to what we have seen, this appears to have become the norm rather than the exception, with the crew on in-service tugs working shifts of between 13 up to 16 hours a day…”

He also said “there is evidence that sufficient rest time between shifts has not been adequate and is not guaranteed.”

Besides the death of the deckhand, there have been other incidents and accidents on the canal, including the collision of a tug with a U.S. Coast Guard cutter.

The tugboat captain’s fatigue because of excessive working hours was identified by the National Transportation Safety Board as a factor in that accident.