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Lifting Covid-19 measures early could harm Panama canal workers

news 18 Jun 2020

The world’s busiest canal and the lives of the thousands of workers who keep it running are at risk, says ITF affiliate UCOC (Unión de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta). The Panama Canal Administration (ACP) has begun to cut corners on Covid safety measures previously agreed with the union.

The union says the canal authority is relaxing measures in their work areas, established to prevent workers from catching the virus and becoming sick, or becoming fatigued through overwork during the pandemic.

When Panama’s government began introducing Covid protocols in workplaces in March, the canal authority, which is state operated, introduced social distancing and prevention measures for their workers – many of them secured by the union. The company initially wanted twelve-hour shifts during seven to ten straight days in order to maintain efficiency with fewer workers per shift.

The union pushed back on these demands, ensuring shifts were instead taken on a rotational basis to reduce fatigue for individual workers. Under the agreement, workers only had to do the twelve-hour shifts for three and four days in a row, maximum. ACP’s memorandum of understanding with the union also set out specific social distancing measures and things like minimum days off, special schedules, and the use of docks for tug crew reliefs. UCOC also secured lodging and lunch boxes for workers who didn’t want to return home for fear of contracting the virus and infecting their families.

But the canal authority is now set on undoing the Covid-19 measures agreed with the union. The moves initially mirrored action by the Panamanian government to loosen Covid restrictions in an effort to restart the country’s economy. After cases in the Central American country started rising again and protests broke out by worried citizens, the government started bringing back the restrictions.

With the country heading back to lockdown, ACP should keep the restrictions agreed with their workforce, says the union. Under the MOU, ACP is supposed to consult with the union on any changes in work schedules and rotations, before going back to regular conditions and any change should be based strictly on the guidelines issued by the Health Ministry. Now that the government is reintroducing restrictions, the union claims ACP has broken its commitment to put workers’ health first and respect all government guidelines contained in the agreement.

The move to water down Covid restrictions despite rising Covid cases in Panama is a high stakes gamble for the canal authority. A spike in infections could see their valuable workforce incapacitated, bringing one of the world’s most important workplaces to a standstill and leaving global supply chains at risk.

UCOC, through a spokesperson, said “Once again, the Panama Canal workers are at great risk due to ACP's refusal to continue with the joint agreement to protect us and the integrity of the operation. Our work from the tugboats is essential for canal operations and we cannot allow that our health is put at risk due to ACP's lack of interest in allocating resources for our protection. We are demanding that the special working conditions continue. ”

Edgar Díaz, ITF Americas acting regional secretary reiterated the ITF's commitment to protect the rights of transport workers, who are essential in these times of pandemic: “We are seeing with concern that countries in the region are relaxing the protection measures to reopen their economies, which is causing great risk to transport workers. Governments must maintain strict policies to protect labour rights and health in their economic reopening. In this case, the government of Panama and the ACP must take into account that Canal workers are not disposable and it is essential to respect the protection agreements, since workers have an essential role in canal operations, so vital for global supply chains”. 

The company’s efforts to scrap the sensible measures agreed with the union come as workers are becoming infected at the canal again, with an increasing number of positive cases in the last week. There have been 21,422 Covid-19 cases in Panama as of 17 June, with over 4,300 of those just in the last seven days. More than 450 Panamanians have died from the virus so far, in a country of four million people.

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