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Silent no more: overworked tugboat workers are reaching breaking point

news Press Release 28 Mar 2022

29 March 2022, London / Brussels

Last year, Troy Pearson and Charley Cragg died while towing a barge bound for a Rio Tinto power station in rough seas and strong, icy winds. They were pressured to work despite the unsafe conditions.

Today the ITF is launching a short film, Tug Workers Sound the Siren, that tells the story of Pearson’s death, and exposes the human cost of an industry in crisis.

A new report has also been released alongside the film that lays bare the rapid deterioration of safety and conditions of employment, driven down by industry consolidation and cartel-like behaviour from the major shipping lines.

“The deaths of Troy Pearson and Charley Cragg are a tragedy. But painfully their story is not unique. Many other families have lost their loved ones unnecessarily in this industry. Today we mourn Troy, Charley and all workers killed at work, it simply should never happen,” said ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton.

“We launch this film with heavy hearts, but if I can borrow the words of Troy’s wife Judy, as unions we must sound the siren on this crisis because if we continue to ‘allow these injustices to happen, nothing is going to change and we will continue to lose lives’.”

Cotton warned today that the tug and towage sector is likely to be the next frontier of the supply chain crisis that has grabbed media headlines over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, saying that shipping companies were increasingly using the leverage gained from consolidating into ‘ocean alliances’ to  drive down tug and towage rates to unsafe and unsustainable levels.

“Consolidation in shipping has led to consolidation in towage: fewer and fewer tug operators are able to survive the pressure of lower rates and in-port competition. In  Europe, for example, the number of major players has dwindled from 10 to just three in less than a decade, and two of those are owned by shipping giants,” said Cotton. 

The ITF report, Stopping the Race to the Bottom, reveals an ever-worsening bidding environment created by the alliances’ demands for discounts and enabled by weak labour laws which allows operators to survive by clawing back costs from their maintenance, safety and labour budgets.

“This investigative research reveals an alarming picture about the modern state of the tug and towage industry,” said Jacques Kerkhof, ETF Towage Committee Chair.

Kerkhof said the current bidding environment hadn’t taken long to flow through to lower health and safety standards, and attacks on workers’ wages and conditions.

“Globally, we are witnessing companies attempting to tear up long-held collective bargaining agreements. We are seeing rising casualisation in the sector. Many workers have been forced into independent contractor status. Companies are reducing investment in fleet upgrades and maintenance, and even reducing manning levels.”

“It’s not surprising that workplace accidents are increasing in severity. Unsafe manning levels are more common. Legal rest times are being violated. Workers’ stress and fatigue levels are rising,” said Kerkhof. “The pressure being placed on tug and towage workers is pushing them to breaking point. The risks are high, to human life, to the environment and to the functioning of our global supply chains.”

On the anniversary of the refloating of the Ever Given, Yury Sukhorukov, ITF Inland Navigation Section Chair, said that industry and governments must recognise towage workers' role in keeping the world’s supply chains moving.

Tug workers were there to refloat the Ever Given on 29 March 2021, after nine days of relentless salvage efforts by maritime workers. 

“Exactly a year ago today one of the largest container ships ever built, the Ever Given, was refloated thanks in large part to tug and salvage workers. This blockage delayed $9.6 billion of goods each day, a monumental cost to the global economy,” said Sukhorukov. “Given that tugs are required every time an average-sized container ship comes in and out of port, or crosses the Panama Canal, the cost will be enormous if we push tug workers past breaking point.”

Cotton, who sits on the board of the United Nations Global Compact, called on the shipping container lines, their clients, tug and towage operators, and the regulators to sit down with the ITF and its affiliates to collectively agree rates that were sustainable for the operators, tied to fair and safe conditions for tug workers.

Teesport tug members of Unite the Union went to Copenhagen to protest Svitzer's actions and parent company Maersk Group's shareholders' meeting.

“For all those tug operators who are struggling, who can see what impact this race to the bottom is having on their workers and port communities - our message is: talk to us. We want a sustainable industry, too,” said Cotton.

“For the clients, from the shipping lines, to investors, through to CEOs of the consumer goods giants – we ask you to pay attention to the urgent call for change being made by tug workers and their unions. Whether companies take human rights due diligence, ESG, corporate responsibility, or purely risk management approach: this crisis cannot be ignored.”



You can access the following materials that are part of this ITF campaign:


About the ITF: The International Transport Workers’ Federation is a democratic, affiliate-led federation of transport workers’ unions recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. We fight passionately to improve workers’ lives, connecting unions and workers from 147 countries to secure rights, equality and justice for their members. We are the voice of the almost-20 million women and men who move the world.


About The ETF: The European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) is a pan-European trade union organisation which embraces transport trade unions from the European Union, the European Economic Area and Central and Eastern European countries. The ETF represents more than 5 million transport workers from more than 200 transport unions across 40 European countries. These workers are found in all parts of the transport industry on land, at sea, and in the air.

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