ITF raises new concerns about privatisation and safety in expanded Panama Canal

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) at a news conference in Panama City, has raised new concerns about the safety of the Panama Canal new locks and a growing threat of privatisation of its members in the Panama Canal.

The Union has previously warned serious safety concerns, after commissioning a study on the locks’ operations.

The ITF states that the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) 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 ACP chose not to increase its tugboat fleets, the ITF said.

According to the ITF, “The lack of [tug] 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.

“The ACP 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,” said the ITF.

“The truth is that what the ACP has done with these private tugboat companies is evidently part of a bigger plan to privatise many of the services offered by the Canal. This privatisation has been rightly condemned by our Panamanian member unions, who are well aware of the accident risks and uncertainty being generated by this among canal workers,” commented ITF president Paddy Crumlin.

“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 ACP 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,” said Crumlin.

“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,” said Ivan de la Guardia, ITF coordinator for Panama and general secretary of Panama’s Tugboats Masters and Mates Union.

“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,” added de La Guardia.

“The ACP wants to eliminate unions completely. There is no way that the canal can deliver to the clients as advertised and increase their daily transits overall unless the tug fleet increases both in number of units and therefore personnel. To this date there has been no initiative from the ACP to hire tug officers, or buy or lease any new tugs. They are obliged to acquire all these resources or the canal won´t be exploited to full capacity. The answer seems to be none other than outsourcing.”

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