Panama Canal tugboat

Panama Canal Sends Thousands of Workers Home

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April 1, 2020
Panama Canal tugboat
File Photo: Panama Canal Authority

By Matthew Bristow and Michael McDonald (Bloomberg) — The gatekeepers of global trade routes are trying to keep goods moving through a wounded world economy while trying to minimize health threats to their own workers.

A prime example is the Panama Canal Authority, which has sent thousands of employees home and rolled out contingency plans to keep trade flowing amid the region’s worst outbreak of the new coronavirus.

The canal said it is now operating with a staff of 3,600, versus the normal 9,000. Workers not dealing directly with ship transits were given two weeks of vacation.

As a country, Panama has 1,075 confirmed cases of the illness, the most in Central America, and about the same number as Mexico, which has a population about 30 times as large. At least seven canal employees have tested positive for the disease.

Before the pandemic shut down large parts of the European and North American economies in March, the number of ships transiting the waterway rose 6% in February from a year earlier. The canal is looking out for signs of a slowdown at American ports which might indicate reduced traffic on the most important route — from the U.S. East Coast to Asia.

At the same time, the rebuilding of inventories in Asia as Chinese industry recovers is potentially a positive sign for the canal.

“We still haven’t received the full market impact,” the authority said, in reply to written questions. “That will depend on how quickly our clients’ economies recover.”

From tugboat captain Ivan de la Guardia’s vantage point, traffic fell in March, though work for some has increased due to longer shifts and some colleagues being in quarantine. Shipping has also been affected by the introduction of draft restrictions due to low water levels.

The canal authority is in talks with unions to increase shift lengths and reduce rotation to reduce contact and prevent contagion.

–With assistance from Zoe Schneeweiss.

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P
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