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ACP Decision to Extend Tug Work Hours and Reduce Tug Crew Staffing Results in Tug Captains Initiating Work Slow Down

Jim Bondoux

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It seems that the Tugboat Captain's union has decided that the safety of ship transits through the new locks is being compromised by the extended work hours required of the tugboat fleet. Worker fatigue seems to be the primary issue. Some captains have made their point via a work stoppage, and the Canal Authority has "sanctioned" them. Apparently transits are continuing with slower passages and without the forward tugboat. In my opinion, this problem will continue to fester until they increase the tugboat fleet and associated crews by a significant number (i.e. 50% +)


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Tug dispute slows new  canal locks transit  

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After a stoppage of ships transiting the Panama Canal new locks on Thursday, Apr.12  because of a dispute with the captains of tugboats, operations continued on Friday with some pilots opting to take postpanamax vessels through the waterway without the lead tug.

This resolves the problem but it requires going with more caution and perhaps more slowly,” said the ACP

Some  tug captains refused to work without a third seaman on the tugboat, reported the Panama Canal Authority (ACP)

The original Canal locks, where the operation is carried out with locomotives, have been operating normally.

The spat with  tug captains emerged after the decision of the  Canal administration  to do away with on  April 12, a third seaman in the Alpha (lead) tugboat as it was introduced on a temporary basis when the third set of locks started operations, on June 26, 2016.

The five transits that were scheduled for Thursday could not be completed because of  the decision of the tug captains, with negative consequences for,  the economy of the country and the reputation of the Panama Canal at an international level says the ACP.

Panama’s Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture of Panama (CCIAP) rejected the actions taken by the tugboat captains.

The Chamber   president Inocencio Galindo said that “the Panama Canal provides a fundamental service for world trade, and cannot afford any kind of paralysis.”

Galindo added that “the measure taken by tug captains not only has a negative impact on the Panama Canal,  but  is detrimental to the national economy “.

Any  of differences that exist between collaborators of the channel and  the administration must be resolved through dialogue, without affecting the correct functioning of it.

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) announced that it initiated a process to sanction some captains.



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Tug captains suspended, Canal back to normal

Plain sailing returns
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OPERATIONS in the Panama Canal returned to normal  on  Saturday, April 14, following  the suspensionof a group of tugboat captains while they are being investigated for paralyzing transits through the expanded locks on Thursday, April  12.

The process was initiated on Friday by the Canal administration to determine the level of responsibility of the captains of tugs that refused to obey administration orders to operate tugs with two sailors, on deck.

On  Saturday nine neopanamax ships passed through the new locks



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OPINION: Canal reputation  at risk

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For the first time in the recent history of the Canal, part of the staff essential to drive Its operations made a work stoppage and, with it, a door was opened that prudence had kept closed.

Panamanians, as owners of this critical piece of world trade, must ask themselves if the availability of the road must yield to a labor claim, even in the event that this is legitimate. The established precedent is dangerous and cannot be accepted as a valid tactic of pressure against the administration of the Canal.

Its stoppage not only affected the operations of our main asset, but could throw into question our ability to make it work responsibly, in congruence with the sacrifice of the martyrs and the efforts of the generations that fought to recover our sovereignty and, with it, control of this important company.

Very aptly, the Canal was armored with a constitutional title that has served to protect it from political fluctuations and attempts of appropriation of its benefits by different interest groups.

The Canal must not only be an example of engineering; must exercise the same exemplary role in institutional performance, demonstrating to the world that its actors are capable of resolving their differences with assertive dialogue,  but seeking safe and uninterrupted transit through the waterway.  … LA PRENSA, Apr.14



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Canal pilots call for tugboat dialogue

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The Panama Canal pilots have called on the directors of the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) and tugboat captains to establish a “true dialogue” in order to solve the current labor conflict.

The call came on Sunday, April 15  after a group of nearly a dozen tug captains refused last Thursday to work with only two sailors aboard the tugs used in the front of neopanamax vessels traveling through the Canal.

After the inauguration of the new locks in June 2017, three sailors were used.

“All of us who work in the ACP, both in administration and  in operations, are responsible for the success of the Canal, and that is based on guaranteeing the safety of the Canal facilities, the assets of our clients and that of ourselves; therefore, we must exhaust all efforts so that together we perform a safe, efficient and expeditious operation,” said  a statement from the pilots.

The group said   that “as a party interested in maintaining the safety standards of the operation of the waterway, it  considers that the ACP should welcome the request  of the  tug captains to initiate a “true dialogue, where the differences are laid  out  and responsibilities are clarified but above all the due process that merits all investigation is respected “.

The statement concluded: “The pilots of the Panama Canal reiterate, once again, their commitment to the country and with global maritime trade, so we will continue  uninterrupted with our safe work, aware of the great responsibility that entails,”

The Maritime Safety Inspection Certificate of these vessels certificate states that the minimum crew required for these tugs is a captain, an auxiliary machinist, and two sailors, reports La Prensa.



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Canal defends road operation and claims foreign trade union interference

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 16:09

Diseño sin título (17)_1.jpg

The Panama Canal defended today the security of its operations, and claimed that through foreign trade union interference the Union of Captains and Cover Officers (UCOC) seeks to exert pressure on the decisions of the waterway.

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) said in a statement that the UCOC has the right and responsibility to resort to institutional channels to address their complaints, so it considered "unacceptable" that on April 12 and 13 several of its members have affected the operation of the Canal.

He said that since April 12, when a group of tugboats refused to follow a work instruction, the UCOC collaborators have carried out "a series of actions that have affected the normal operation of the Canal and the reputation of the interoceanic way in front of our clients".

The ACP recalled that it has initiated disciplinary actions against those captains who refused to follow the instructions.

Last Tuesday, the UCOC, with the support of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), announced that they will sue the Canal administration and conduct an independent investigation on work fatigue.

That day, UCOC General Secretary Cristóbal Fálquez said at a press conference that Panamanian lawyer Guillermo Cochez will file the legal complaints against the ACP.

The case refers to the actions of the ACP, which this year eliminated a sailor and then a deck captain of the tugboats that operate in the lock of the expanded canal, which is considered by the captains as an "arbitrary" decision that puts "at risk" the safety of the workers and the ships that pass through there.

This measure led on April 12 that a captain decided not to tow a container carrier for security reasons, which delayed traffic for about twelve hours, a situation that Fálquez said is entirely the responsibility of the ACP.

Faced with this, the waterway administrator said on Thursday that it is "concerned that, in order to distract public opinion from being accountable for its faults, (from the UCOC) they are issuing false information and claims against the Canal and its Administration".

Therefore, the Canal Authority reiterated that the tugboat operation will not be privatized, that it has an updated manual for such operations and that the Maritime Safety Inspection Certificate clearly establishes that the required crew of a tugboat includes a captain, an auxiliary machinist for power boats and two sailors.

"Under these conditions, the operation of the Canal is safe," said the Authority.

It added that after the April incidents several meetings with representatives of the UCOC have been held "without the will of this group to clarify the facts in the framework of due process and work together towards the greater interests of the Canal and of the country".

The Canal Authority also claimed that it has seen "how the UCOC promotes the interference of a foreign union", with which, he said, it is intended "to exert pressure on the decisions of the Canal Administration" in an "unacceptable" and "irresponsible way".

According to the ACP, this "not only undermines the autonomy of the Canal, but also against the sovereignty of Panama, since our tugboats do not operate in international waters, but only in waters of Panama Canal operations".

The Canal, which inaugurated its first expansion two years ago, unites more than 140 maritime routes and 1,700 ports in 160 different countries and through it about 6 percent of world trade passes.



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On 4/13/2018 at 12:41 PM, Jim Bondoux said:

It seems that the Tugboat Captain's union has decided that the safety of ship transits through the new locks is being compromised by the extended work hours required of the tugboat fleet. Worker fatigue seems to be the primary issue. Some captains have made their point via a work stoppage, and the Canal Authority has "sanctioned" them. Apparently transits are continuing with slower passages and without the forward tugboat. In my opinion, this problem will continue to fester until they increase the tugboat fleet and associated crews by a significant number (i.e. 50% +)



TUG-OF-WAR: Forced Labor on the New Panama Canal?

By Nash Landesman

From his office on the jungled banks of the Panama Canal, the leader and Secretary General of the tugboat captain’s union is a short, muscular, bald man in his early forties. “We keep running into the same trouble,” says Iván de la Guardia. “Fatigue, from the excessive work hours we have been forced to work. We are forced to work overtime [at time and a half pay] because we don’t have enough guys to run both the old Canal and the new Canal. If we worked an eight hour day, the Panama Canal would stop.”

The Panama Canal Authority, which declined to comment for this article, completed a five billion dollar expansion in 2016, introducing a new set of locks, adding a new, wider sea lane able to haul twice as many supertankers between the Atlantic and the Pacific as before.

But instead of hiring extra personnel needed to meet the increased workload, the Panama Canal simply doubled-down on the workload for existing employees, stretching them past the brink of exhaustion, and creating a deadly climate of fatigue embedded in a labor struggle on the isthmus.

The main difference between the old and new Canals is an important technical one: the old Canal uses a pair of locomotives to pull the ships from along the shore, with tugboats used for entryway assistance only. The “new” Canal replaces those locomotives with tugboats entirely, with one or more small craft tied to each end—bow and stern—of the passing vessel.

The problem: “There is an overcharge on the workload,” says de la Guardia. “We have the same number of guys working the old Canal as we do working both the new Canal and the old Canal. Last week a guy worked 48 hours straight. Before that the record was 35 [straight hours]. And that’s what we’re getting with this new program. If you work overtime without consent that’s forced labor under ILO conventions. But if you say to the guy above you that you’re tired, you can get slapped with charges or fired. Guys get scared.”

A younger captain, in his late-twenties, added: “There is definitely a culture of intimidation here,” said Rodrigo Fuerte. “We have 11 guys on the verge of getting fired just for speaking out.”

Panama-Canal-Photo-2.png Photo courtesy of Iván de la Guardia: a tugboat at the Panama Canal facing a bridge.

The Panama Canal last year initiated a manpower shortage by removing a key member of a tug boat’s crew known as the “second captain,” or third mate. [1] “We have been asking for years: when are you going to hire new people?” said de la Guardia. “Then in April they did the opposite: They changed the crew of the tugboats without telling us—we would normally have three seamen; and they reduced it to two. It’s like being an airline pilot and getting told, ‘sorry, there’s no more co-pilot’. The only way we could avoid getting killed by falling asleep was with that second captain.”

Then, one day in April, tugboat captains staged a protest:  a work-stoppage protesting the removal of the second captain, freezing traffic at the Panama Canal.  

Participants were swiftly sanctioned as order was restored. According to a statement issued by the Panama Canal Authority, reprimands were “based on the fact that these captains of tugboats refused to fulfill their duty to assist the transit of vessels through the neopanamax locks, which affected the regular operation and caused a negative economic impact for the country as it affected the confidence of our clients and in the image of the Panama Canal.” [ii]

The implicit message: accept the deteriorating, increasingly dangerous conditions of the Canal, or face harsh discipline.

Because the Canal is officially considered internal waters of Panama, it is not highly regulated by the International Maritime Organization—the London regulatory body who deliberates in secret meetings which journalists are forbidden to cover, according to the London Economist. [iii]

Panama has not ratified a number of International Labor  Organization (ILO) conventions,[iv] such as those protecting collective bargaining rights, or enforcing basic occupational safety and health conventions for seafaring work. Furthermore, the majority of ships passing through the Canal are registered in places like Liberia, Panama, or the Marshall Islands[v], allowing shippers from across the globe to skirt basic safety standards for their crews while dodging taxes. [vi]  

Tugboat captains certainly face degrading conditions. With no more second captain available to take the wheel, for one, it is no longer a possibility for pilots to eat or use the bathroom during multi-hour transits. The Canal’s narrow walls offer a razor-thin margin for error. Some captains refrain from drinking water altogether prior to transit; others bring with them a bottle in which to urinate. Any flinch at the controls could cause a catastrophic leak or spill.

Panama-Canal-Photo-3.png Courtesy of Iván de la Guardia: interior view from a tugboat guiding a vessel through the Canal

At the end of an eight-hour day, it’s common for a tug boat captain to receive a call on his radio asking that he perform yet another mega-ship transit, perhaps forty miles away, starting at the opposite end of the Panama Canal, in Colón.

“Just waiting for transport to take you to the other end of the Canal can take up to two hours,” complained Rodrigo Fuerte. “But you’re afraid to say ‘no, my shift is over,’ even if it’s past midnight and you’re exhausted.”

These undermanned crews have already proven dangerous. In November 2017, a veteran deck hand, Osvaldo de la Espada, got killed when a rope fell into the ocean, getting caught underneath a ship’s propeller. It snapped and recoiled, striking Osvaldo fatally in the head.  

“That accident never would have happened had they not pulled our second captain,” maintains de la Guardia.

“The way we do it: There’s a guy manning the winch. But since they pulled a seamen from our crews, that guy on the winch is now gone,” he explains. “We go into the flare of the ship and the tugboats have to get in there to get the line to go up and down. The guy is working out there—in the black, at night, under the rain. Without that extra guy looking up, you cannot see the line handler, who had the role of looking at the guy on the winch, communicating. Since they pulled the third seaman, we’ve lost that guy.”  

By this captain’s calculation: “An LNG [liquid natural gas] ship pays an average of half a million dollars in tolls. Many ships: $1.2 million. Do you know how much it costs to have that crucial [third] seaman? 40 bucks” [U.S., per hour], says de la Guardia. “They are just ******* with safety.”

If you fall asleep, even for a second, he adds, you risk going outside the channel and sinking the tug, or causing an accident after missing a pilot order.

Last year, a tugboat captain fell asleep at the wheel, and with no second captain on board to wake him, his tugboat went careening out of control, smashing into the U.S. Coast Guard ship, “Tampa”. [vii]

This being an international incident, the NTSB (National Transportation and Safety Board) sent supervisory investigator Barry Strauch to confirm the cause: fatigue-inducing work schedules.

In the summer of 2018 the International Transport Workers Federation commissioned Strauch to investigate working conditions on the Panama Canal with an eye on tug boat operations. (Strauch is something of an expert witness-for-hire around Washington D.C.; a paid lobbyist for sectors within the transportation industry.) In his 30-year career with the NTSB, he has investigated America’s most horrific maritime, aviation and train wrecks. His 177-page report on the Panama Canal, co-authored with a local occupational medicine specialist, Dr. Isabel Gonzalez, is called “The fatigue of the captains: an imminent catastrophe.” [viii]

Strauch surmised, that, “In effect, ACP [the Panama Canal Authority] has increased the likelihood of captain errors by maintaining fatigue-inducing schedules, and then it increased the likelihood that the resultant errors would lead to catastrophic accidents by removing the one element that could reduce the likelihood of captain errors from becoming accidents, the second captain . . . risking the continued economic viability of [The Canal], let alone the lives of those who work in or live near the Canal.”

Over the phone from his office in Virginia, Strauch warns of a looming storm: “The combination of fatigue from excessive forced overtime, fueled by the removal of the second captain, the round-the-clock transport of hazardous cargo, including nuclear material and highly-combustible liquid petroleum gas—-and all of it being in a dense population zone [Panama City], work together to increase the likelihood of a catastrophic accident.”

“Remember: safety really means money, on both sides,” Strauch says. “There is always a trade-off.”

The study showed that tugboat captains working the extended new schedules had seen sharp increases in divorce rates, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart problems and chronic insomnia— inducing a series of automobile accidents when tugboat captains fell asleep at the wheels of their cars driving to and from work.

The question is: why? To save a few bucks? Ivan de la Guardia claims that the Canal has been aiming to “eliminate unions and privatize operations, piece by piece, starting with the janitors and working their way up.” He adds: “Who are they going to replace us with? They’ve tried dumping in people from Nicaragua, Venezuela, many of whom couldn’t take basic orders because they didn’t even speak English,” [the official language spoken at the Canal.] “I know we are not astronauts, but we are all graduates of maritime academies. Do you know how long it takes to make a deck-hand? Or an engineer? Two years.”

According to the 25-year Canal veteran, “Quijano [the Canal’s current president] is driving the Panama Canal into a ditch. A ditch within a ditch…..At least when the Americans ran the Canal as a government agency, safety was a priority. Now it’s all about ‘efficiency’—and that means moving the most ships at the lowest possible cost.

Passing out photocopies of the Canal’s vexing new management tree, the young captain Rodrigo Fuerte notes: “In October there was a reorganization of the Canal. Now it is run by seven or eight vice presidencies. They changed in composition and name. The new name implies sacrificing other things, like safety.” He added, ominously: “But it looks like it’s going to take a catastrophic accident before anyone pays attention.”

The interviews in this article were conducted by the author in Panama City, Panama, between January 3rd, 2019 and March 18th, 2019.


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