Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Panama Canal Row Continues as Safety of Tug Boat Crews Claimed to be in Jeopardy

Authority Reaction Inflames Union Anger
Shipping News Feature
PANAMA – The simmering row between the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) and the Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) and its native affiliate, the Union de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta (UCOC), which represents the Canal's tug captains, continues unabated after the ACP reacted in the press to the report issued last week in which it was claimed that fatigue amongst the tug captains, who marshal some of the world's biggest ships through the waterway, was presenting a serious risk.

No reaction by the ACP however has shown up on the authority’s website, but statements by the ACP to local media state that it is the intention of the ITF to damage the image of the Canal in the eyes of its customers and to ‘confuse opinion’. The authority further states that the schedules to which the tug skippers work have been unchanged for more than 40 years and are the product of negotiation with the UCOC.

This claim is certainly one which flies in the face of recorded history. In April this year some tugboat captains refused to accompany ships through the passageway after they said the ACP had unilaterally reduced the number of deckhands aboard their vessels from 3 to 2. The unions insist that the design of the new locks, which require two tugs, one fore and aft to manoeuvre the large ships, make it dangerous to operate with this level of staff, particularly for the forward tug which is most liable to be endangered by the bigger vessel.

The current reaction from the ACP has brought a swift retort from the ITF which says the union commissioned report was discussed during the Plenary Session of the International Maritime Organization’s 100th Maritime Safety Committee last week and was well received ‘as it provides an independent expert overview of the situation in the Canal’. It states it is both ‘astonished and disappointed’ by the ACP reaction.

The ACP statement to the press referred to ‘captains of tugs with a foreign union’ prompting a strong response with the ITF saying this is both a ‘misperception and misrepresentation’. The ITF is a democratic global union federation of 670 transport workers trade unions representing over 20 million transport workers in 140 countries. UCOC is one of the sixteen ITF affiliated unions in Panama therefore, it points out, the ITF is not a foreign union.

Despite ACP protestations of negotiated agreements the ITF says it has over the past 18 months on several occasions offered to facilitate an open and transparent dialogue between the representatives of the ACP and UCOC. The ITF statement continues:

”The ITF has also repeatedly invited the ACP to actively participate in the study, which ACP has regretfully failed to mention in their comments to the media. The ACP has also omitted the fact that they sent a letter informing us that the experts tasked to conduct the study were forbidden to access any ACP facilities as part of their research. In fact, one of the main drivers behind this report was the protection of the safety of Panamanians working on the Canal, and reputation of the Canal itself for all Panamanians. The Canal is of major economic and symbolic value to Panama and the ITF will do whatever it can to prevent the ACP from undermining that.

”It is sad that once again the ACP has chosen to spread disinformation in order to deflect from the real issues, as identified in the study, instead of expressing a willingness to find the mutually beneficial solutions that will minimise fatigue and increase safety in one of the world’s most important maritime transit routes. The ITF calls on the ACP to cease its detrimental and damaging behaviour and enter into a serious, constructive dialogue with the professionals that work in and for the Canal so that the success of the Canal continues and the Canal remains a proud and vital asset to Panama’s economy and to the global shipping industry as a whole.

”The ITF fully supports the Canal, but a successful Canal cannot be built on unsafe conditions that put human lives and the environment at risk. The ITF reiterates our strong commitment to constructive cooperation with the ACP and hope that ACP will accept our invitation to have an open, honest and transparent dialogue with UCOC.”