Tensions Heat Up over Panama Canal Safety Dispute

The dispute between the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) and its tugboat captains over safety issues at the canal is intensifying.

The conflict started on April 12 when tug captains refused to transit ships through the expanded canal, thus impacting the traffic through the Neopanamax locks, ACP said.

As a result, the canal authority decided to sanction the workers saying that they broke the law by refusing to fulfill their duty “which affected the regular operation and caused a negative economic impact on the country.”

However, the Union of Tugboat Captains and Deck Officers of the Panama Canal (UCOC Panama) said the tugboat captains in question refused to conduct the maneuvering as it endangered the safety of crews and the canal as well.

According to UCOC, the Panama Canal Authority is deploying a reduced number of crew members to the tugboats as a way of cutting costs.

In particular, the captains’ union is criticizing ACP’s decision to reduce the number of deckhands handling lines aboard tugboats in the locks from three to two. The reduced number of workers has been linked to wear and tear on the locks, the death of a worker in November, and the collision of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Tampa.

Nevertheless, ACP said that the reduction was in fact “normalization of operations” which was planned all along.  As explained, the third mariner was introduced on board the tugs to test the security of the winches, a stage which has now been concluded.

The canal authority also stressed that the last year’s incident had nothing to do with the labor stoppage and that the workers’ are being sanctioned for refusing to work not for their safety concerns.

Responding to the claims from ACP, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which had called for the removal of sanctions and dialogue on the matter, said that “this is not a labor dispute (…), but a fair request from transport professionals.”

“The ACP conveniently omitted a report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), one of the most reputable and recognized organizations responsible for civil transportation accident investigation. The report, which detailed the incident of the USCGC Tampa in the new canal locks, clearly identified safety hazards, something our affiliated union, Unión de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta (UCOC), has repeatedly highlighted with the ACP,” ITF said.

“We are in possession of correspondence showing that for more than two years, UCOC and other maritime unions warned the APC about issues regarding training, safety and operations in the new canal locks. Most of this correspondence was ignored, and on the few occasions that it was not the ACP’s responses were at best evasive and did not genuinely address the issues raised.”

The union added that it was committed to supporting its Panama maritime affiliates and urged the ACP to engage in constructive dialogue with Panama maritime unions.

World Maritime News Staff