Panama Canal tug captains suspended in dispute over crewing

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(PANAMA CITY, Panama) — Operations in the Panama Canal returned to normal Saturday after the suspension of a group of tugboat captains being investigated for paralyzing transits through the expanded locks last week, Seatrade Maritime News reported.

“The (suspension) is based on the fact that these tugboat captains refused to fulfill their duty of assisting the transit of vessels through the (new) post-Panamax locks, which affected the regular operation and caused a negative economic impact on the country as it affected the confidence of our clients and the image of the Panama Canal,” the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) said in a prepared statement.

It was the first time that tug captains had refused to obey ACP's orders to assist neo-Panamax vessels in the new locks with two crewmen on deck after a decision by the authority to do away with a third crewman in the lead tugboat. That measure had been introduced on a temporary basis when the third set of locks started operations in June 2016.

The five transits in the new locks that were scheduled for Thursday could not be completed because of the decision of the tug captains.

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The following is a translated news release from the Union of Tugboat Captains and Deck Officers of the Panama Canal (UCOC):

(PANAMA CITY, Panama) — The unconsultation and sudden decision of the Panama Canal administration to eliminate a tugboat sailor from the bow endangers the safety of customers, workers and the canal's own facilities. Already in November of last year there was an accident that claimed the life of a sailor and we do not want history to repeat itself.

It is false that the captains of tugboats refuse to do their job; the events of the last 48 hours are due to discrepancies in issues that specifically affect the safety of navigation and the operation of the Panama Canal.

We see with concern that the Friday transits were made in breach of the regulations and navigation manuals; since a human error in these maneuvers can cost the country millions of dollars and greatly affect world maritime trade.

Before the communique sent this Thursday by the ACP (Panama Canal Authority), we, like all Panamanians, want our channel to work without interruptions. We regret the inconveniences caused and apologize to the Panamanian people for the decisions taken by the ACP. However, we reiterate that the safety of the road can not be put at risk at any time due to the arbitrariness of the administration of the ACP.

In a sensible way, we have welcomed the call to dialogue made by the sub-administrator, whom we have called repeatedly throughout the day without receiving any response.

It is striking that without an investigation of the facts, the ACP has indicated that it will sanction the captains who, according to the parameters established in the collective agreement and internal regulations, responsibly requested the figure of the third seaman to carry out the transit insurance. The ACP has disrespected the due process to which every individual is entitled.

What happened in the last hours demonstrates the deterioration of labor relations in the canal authority, a situation that we have denounced on several occasions, so we ask the board to hear the clamor of the working class, an active force that moves the channel.

We reiterate our commitment to continue towing progress and uphold the name of our nation.

By Professional Mariner Staff