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Police brutality won’t fix Panama Canal’s safety crisis

news 11 May 2021

Panamanian authorities would rather unleash police violence on union activists and detain peaceful protesters than address the urgent safety concerns canal workers have been highlighting.

The tug boat captains represented by Unión de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta (UCOC) report that the country’s police violently broke up a protest on 29 April 2021. The workers help guide more than 12,000 ships through the canal every year. 

Photos and videos captured by horrified on-lookers graphically depict police lodging tear gas at protestors, with gun shots potentially being fired. Several union activists were arrested by police also.

UCOC and other Panamanian unions representing canal workers have been calling for safer working conditions following several incidents at the canal. They are angry at the statements of Canal administrator Ricaurte Vásquez, who they say is out of touch with the reality of dangerous working conditions in the canal.

“They are putting exhaustive shifts on us,” Zaide Morán told “We are parents, it is not possible that you get to work an hour and leave 13 hours later, and we return the next day and it is the same,“ she said.

“They took away a day of work, now we come four days a week but with 12-hour days.”

Police attack protesters in Panama (Credit: Nautilus)

Canal workers are worried that an incident even worse than the stranding of the Ever Given may occur in the Panama Canal. They worry lives could be lost.

The union is calling for urgent changes to working hours and rosters to curb the deadly fatigue likely to be at the centre of any calamity. But changes depend on the outcomes from collective bargaining, which the union says is not going well with the canal authority acting “in bad faith”.


Canal workers’ concerns supported by ITF

The tug workers’ union UCOC is an affiliate of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which counts more than 20 million transport workers among its ranks – including tug boat workers from every region of the world.

“The ITF condemns the violent oppression by the Panama Canal Administration of its workers,” said Edgar Díaz, regional secretary of ITF Américas.

“We want to express our solidarity and support for those workers in their struggle. They were simply exercising their right to demonstrate provided for in the Panamanian constitution and regulations of the canal,” said Díaz.

“ACP seems to relish its confrontational approach with workers, making it ever harder to discuss safety issues,” said Díaz.

“The canal is a global resource which needs proper management. Instead, the ACP hides behind barbarous police action, shifting the focus from its total failure to deal with the escalating safety crisis.”


ITF Americas regional secretary Edgar Díaz has expressed support for the UCOC members fighting for safe hours of work and rest at the Panama Canal (Credit: ITF)

Edgar Díaz’ comments were echoed by the ITF’s Inland Navigation Section coordinator Fabrizio Barcellona.

“The local union and the ITF regionally are trying to work with the Panamanian authorities to improve safety on the canal. These workers are working dangerously long hours, compromising crew and ship safety, and the safety of Panama Canal itself,” said Barcellona.

“What these workers have got in return for raising their legitimate safety concerns, is an extreme police response endangering the lives of union members and the public.”

Barcellona said across the world, members of the ITF’s global tug and towage family were contacting him concerned about the situation in Central American country.

“Internationally, we are shocked to see these images and learn of the violence being metered out on the tug workers in Panama. The canal authorities, police and government leaders must understand that these waterways are under a major spotlight following the events in the Suez earlier this year. The world is very much watching,” said Barcellona.


Safety issues ‘well-known’, a recipe for disaster

The events of police brutality have also been visible to European trade unions deeply concerned with the violence they see coming from Panama’s National Police.

Jacques Kerkhof is the federal secretary of maritime department of the Belgian Union of Transport Workers (BTB/UBT) – a union that has long been concerned with global shipping and logistics companies pushing down workers’ wages in developing economies as part of a process called ‘social dumping’.

Kerkhof said BTB and others within the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) were outraged at the situation in Panama. He serves as chair of the ETF’s Tug and Towage Committee and is regular contact with his Panamanian counterpart, who he said has been keeping him informed of the police violence happening towards UCOC members.

“This kind of police reaction is unacceptable,” Kerkhof said speaking of Panama. “It is in everyone’s interests, including the ship owners’ who use the canal, to talk about the safety issues and come to a resolution quickly.”

BTB delegates from the tug boat industry join the ETF fair transport demonstration through the streets of Brussels in March 2019 – with more than 5000 transport workers campaigning against ‘social dumping’ and other attacks on workers’ rights in Europe and globally (Credit: BTB)

Kerkhof said the Panama Canal administrators were running an essential service of global importance, much like the Suez Canal Authority. He said they needed to view the Canal in this light, not just as a national asset or a regular workplace.

“With current safety management, it is easy to envisage the canal coming to a halt because of an accident like Ever Given in the Suez. Such mismanagement would then cause a global economic crisis,” he said.

Kerkhof said the issues facing workers and safety at the canal were well-known within the global shipping industry. In 2018 an independent report warned of the dangers of fatigue. He said problems were clearly on the horizon if action was not taken to address overwork and tiredness.

“It’s very unwise of ACP to constantly look for cost reductions, regardless of the safety results. Instead of investing in suitable vessels and investing in its people, the canal administrators have chosen to put untenable pressure on the women and men who work this waterway with long, dangerous shifts.”

"When a lack of maintenance is combined with long shifts and fatigue - this is a recipe for disaster," Kerkhof said.

Kerkhof and his colleagues have been increasingly vocal in their warnings about the dangers of cutbacks and downward pressure on tug and towage contractors across the globe, especially since the Ever Given thrust the industry into the global limelight.

“The tug and towage industry is under constant pressure worldwide,” he said. “In one country, it is bogus self-employment. In another, unfair competition through social dumping, and so on.”

“But it is always driven by the same phenomenon: it is the big multinationals at the top of the shipping food chain who find essential transport costs such as these too expensive.”

ETF Tug and Towage Committee chair Jacques Kerkhof said a lack of maintenance and long shifts in the Panama Canal were ultimately being driven by downward cost pressures from the global shipping companies. He called on the shipping companies and the cargo owners who use them to understand the pressure they were putting on tug and towage operators, including the Panama Canal. (Credit: BTB)

A good safety policy had to be based on good wages and working conditions; it was critical to prevent disasters like the Ever Given in Suez Canal, “or much worse”, said Kerkhof.

“I therefore call on all the large shipowners of the world and the global brands that count on them to move their cargo: in your own interest and in the interest of our tugboat personnel and the global economy, grant a fair share of the cake to every part of the transport industry. It is the only safe way,” he said.