ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation) have raised fresh concerns about the safety of the new locks on the Panama Canal and a growing threat of privatisation of its members in the Panama Canal at a press conference in Panama City held last week.
The ITF held a top level meeting in Panama in recognition of that country’s role as a key global transport hub and component of the Federation’s plans for building the future of work. At that meeting, the ITF sounded a new alarm over the operation of the Canal. Along with its Panamanian unions it has previously raised serious safety concerns, after commissioning a study into operation of the new infrastructure.
The ITF states that the Panama Canal Authority (PCA) carried out a study in 2011 to determine the type and size of the tugboat fleet necessary to operate the new locks. Their findings pointed towards a certain amount of personnel, tugs and other resources as well as training and operational procedures needed and that are lacking today. Despite the revised lock plans the PCA chose not to increase its tugboat fleets.
Now the lack of vessels has been used as an excuse for chartering 12 tugboats from private and anti-union companies. The crews of those vessels live in fear of dismissal for union activities, meaning that they are denied union representation.
This has led to them working longer hours for less pay, without union protection. There are particular worries over fatigue and the increased accident risk associated with it.
Meanwhile the PCA has tried to outsource other areas such as emergency medical and ambulance services – all crucial parts of the contingency plans in the event of an accident.
Speaking at the press conference, ITF president Paddy Crumlin commented: “The ITF commissioned a manoeuvrability study that determined the risks of the operation planned by the Panama Canal and offered a series of suggestions that would reduce the risks. Unfortunately the PCA did not implement any of those precautionary measures and accidents have taken place in the new locks that are very similar to those raised as risks by the study.”
Mr Crumlin concluded: “The canal workers, including the pilots and the tugboat captains, are trained professionals. The PCA’s attempts to privatise these services potentially jeopardise the operation of this vastly important route, at a time when it should be offering greater benefits to the people of Panama, and to world trade.”
Ivan de la Guardia, ITF coordinator for Panama and general secretary of Panama’s Tugboats Masters and Mates Union added: “The crews on these hired tugs do not have the same skillset that canal personnel have acquired through intensive training and years of experience. There are language barriers and ignorance of even the most basic operational protocols and procedures. This is clearly not their fault since they have not been trained by the Canal Authority and also the fact that their employers are not being fair by throwing them into the fray without the needed preparation”.
“It is clear that the cost of hiring these tugs exceeds that of the normal canal tugs. They charge million a year, according to figures leaked to us. That’s capital that is leaving our economy.