Union study raises ante in Panama Canal crewing dispute


Entrenched is the best word to describe the positions of the Panama Canal Authority (PCA) and the Union of Tugboat Captains and Deck Officers of the Panama Canal (UCOC) on the question of safe crewing sizes on tugboats guiding neo-Panamax vessels through the new third set of locks.

In mid-2018, the PCA initiated disciplinary action against tugboat captains who objected to the reduced crew sizes. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) responded in June 2018 by commissioning a study on the occupational health and workplace fatigue of Panama Canal tug captains. The ITF study was designed to address areas not covered in a PCA-commissioned study by The Maritime Group (TMG) in 2017. The results of that study were accepted by the PCA as findings that would “play a major role as we continue to expand capacity in a sustainable and safe way.”

The ITF study was conducted by Dr. Barry Strauch, an international authority on human error and accident causation, and Dr. Isabel Gonzales, a Panamanian physician with expertise in occupational health risks. Strauch and Gonzales interviewed 55 captains — more than a third of the 150 active on the Panama Canal — about their schedules in the previous 60 days. The researchers found that more than half of the captains suffered from fatigue affecting both their health and job performance due to the disruption of circadian sleep patterns, extended time on task and insufficient rest time. In early December, the report was cited by the ITF at a session of the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Safety Committee (IMO MSC).

The PCA rejected the study at the IMO meeting. Later, the canal authority issued a prepared statement saying that it “rejects the study and dismisses claims over alleged fatigue and safety at the Panama Canal. In their attempt to affect the Panama Canal’s image toward its customers, the tugboat captains’ union … is promoting interference from the International Transport Workers’ Federation in canal matters.”

The PCA went on to tout canal successes such as 5,000 neo-Panamax vessel transits since the opening of the new set of locks in June 2016; an average of eight neo-Panamax transits per day in 2018; four LNG vessel transits in one day in 2018; and record tonnage for the year. The PCA also cited the TMG study as evidence that the authority was cognizant of the need to take union concerns seriously. However, it asserted that the ITF study “has not been validated by the PCA. The ITF did not consult the Panama Canal administration when commissioning this study. Our captains are scheduled work shifts of eight hours and are relieved three times a day from the tugs where they are assigned.”

The PCA also stated that “the schedules in which tug captains work in the canal have been the same for more than 40 years,” implying that there’s no need to change anything.

The UCOC disputed the PCA’s claims about the length of work shifts and relief for tug captains. A union source told Professional Mariner that since June 2016, a significant change has occurred in that tugboats guide neo-Panamax ships through the third set of locks — rather than locomotives in the other lock chambers — which has necessitated a change in crew arrangements and schedules. As to the objection that the ITF is a foreign union, a UCOC tugboat captain responded as follows: “The ITF is a union of all the unions in the world that have to do with transportation. It has helped many sailors in the world who are in trouble. You just have to contact the ITF representative at the place of abuse. The ITF has won powerful concessions from companies for workers, so the Panama Canal will not be the exception, as Panama is a signatory to the Maritime Labor Convention of 2006.”

In regard to sanctions against tugboat captains objecting to the crewing numbers, the PCA said it has an internal process for these cases established by its regulations. The UCOC responded that only recently a former union officer received notice of a 30-day suspension; other than that, the union said the PCA administration refuses to meet and continues to threaten more suspensions in the hope that tugboat captains will silence themselves and submit.

By Professional Mariner Staff