ITF Warns of Privatization in Panama Canal Tugboat Fleet

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October 25, 2016

A Panama Canal tug guides the LNG carrier Maran Gas Apollonia in the new Agua Clara locks on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal, Monday, July 27, 2016. Photo: Panama Canal Authority (ACP)

The International Transport Workers’ Federation has raised its concerns over the safety of the Panama Canal’s new locks amid what it says is a growing threat of privatization within waterway operations.

The ITF sounded the alarm during a top level meeting union leaders held in Panama last Friday. The global union federation is saying that the Panama Canal Authority, the government agency responsible for the operation and management of the canal, has ignored warnings about the size of the tugboat fleet necessary to operate the new locks and have now turned to private and anti-union companies to fill to the void. The ITF says the ACP also tried to outsource other areas such as emergency and ambulance services.

Speaking at the press conference, ITF president Paddy Crumlin, commented: “The truth is that what the PCA has done with these private tugboat companies is evidently part of a bigger plan to privatize many of the services offered by the Canal. This privatization 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.”

The ITF also slammed the ACP for ignoring suggestions made in an ITF-commissioned study which raised serious concerns regarding the safety and maneuverability of pilot tugboats when guiding ships through the new locks.

Ivan de la Guardia, ITF coordinator for Panama and general secretary of Panama’s Tugboats Masters and Mates Union, which represents Canal pilots, said: “The crews on these hired tugs do not have the same skillset that canal personnel have acquired through intensive training and years of experience.”

Ivan added:

“The PCA 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. It takes at least a year to train and put in place a tug officer in the canal. Tug personnel are being exploited and grossly overworked in order to make ends meet.

“All these factors point towards a severe breach of the integrity of the operation and a serious downgrade of the safety to navigation through our waterway.”

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