Last year two workers died while towing a barge for Rio Tinto in rough, icy waters, with ITF noting that they were pressured to work despite unsafe weather. Now, ITF is launching the short film “Tug Workers Sound the Siren”, describing the death of one the workers, as well as a report that sheds light on “the rapid deterioration of safety and conditions of employment, driven down by industry consolidation and cartel-like behaviour from the major shipping lines.”
ccording to ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton, the tug and towage sector is likely to be the next frontier of the supply chain crisis that has grabbed media headlines over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, saying that shipping companies were increasingly using the leverage gained from consolidating into ‘ocean alliances’ to drive down tug and towage rates to unsafe and unsustainable levels.
Consolidation in shipping has led to consolidation in towage: fewer and fewer tug operators are able to survive the pressure of lower rates and in-port competition. In Europe, for example, the number of major players has dwindled from 10 to just three in less than a decade, and two of those are owned by shipping giants
The ITF report, Stopping the Race to the Bottom, reveals an “ever-worsening bidding environment created by the alliances’ demands for discounts and enabled by weak labour laws which allows operators to survive by clawing back costs from their maintenance, safety and labour budgets.”
As Jacques Kerkhof, ETF Towage Committee Chair, explains, this investigative research reveals an alarming picture about the modern state of the tug and towage industry, noting that the current bidding environment did not take long to flow through to lower health and safety standards, “and attacks on workers’ wages and conditions.”
“It’s not surprising that workplace accidents are increasing in severity. Unsafe manning levels are more common. Legal rest times are being violated. Workers’ stress and fatigue levels are rising. The pressure being placed on tug and towage workers is pushing them to breaking point
What is more, on the anniversary of the refloating of the Ever Given, Yury Sukhorukov, ITF Inland Navigation Section Chair, said that industry and governments must recognise towage workers’ role in keeping the world’s supply chains moving.
Given that tugs are required every time an average-sized container ship comes in and out of port, or crosses the Panama Canal, the cost will be enormous if we push tug workers past breaking point
Considering the above, Mr. Cotton called on the shipping container lines, their clients, tug and towage operators, and the regulators to sit down with the ITF and its affiliates to agree rates that were sustainable for the operators, tied to fair and safe conditions for tug workers.
For the clients, from the shipping lines, to investors, through to CEOs of the consumer goods giants – we ask you to pay attention to the urgent call for change being made by tug workers and their unions. Whether companies take human rights due diligence, ESG, corporate responsibility, or purely risk management approach: this crisis cannot be ignored