The International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P), a Nautilus Federation affiliate, has released a statement warning of another supply chain crisis in the Panama Canal which has the potential to impact international maritime trade to an extent far greater than the grounding of the Ever Given.
The tugboat operators responsible for shepherding Neopanamax vessels through the expanded Panama Canal are experiencing serious fatigue due to their working conditions. This poses a safety risk, which in turn has the ability to affect global supply chains, according to the union. MM&P are calling for immediate action to ensure safe working conditions in the operation of the Canal.
MM&P warns of a developing crisis in the Canal, as workers are being forced to perform their jobs under increasingly hazardous conditions, a situation that puts the world's supply chain at risk. It says the hazards faced by the workers stem from the poor design of the expanded canal, which has given rise to a much more labour-intensive process of vessel transit.
In the new locks, tugboats are continuously required to safely position vessels in transit. This puts great strain on the tugboat operators, who are often at the controls of their tugs for many hours without relief, throughout the entire transit.
Nautilus has been working with the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) and MM&P to put pressure on the Panama Canal Authority after Panamanian tug captain's union and Nautilus affiliate Unión de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta (UCOC) raised the alarm on the poor working hours and unsafe conditions in the Canal since the launch of the expansion in 2016.
In June 2019, 13 Union activists were suspended or facing suspensions and dismissal from duty for taking part in the long-running dispute over working conditions.
Serious accidents have occurred already, with the 2017 collision with the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Tampa because a tug captain fell asleep. A fatigue study commissioned by the ITF in 2018 suggested a number of recommendations, yet none have been adopted.
Nautilus wrote a joint letter with the ITF and MM&P addressed to the Panama Canal Authority in February 2020 urging that they talk to the tug masters to address the concerns over unsafe working hours and conditions. However, there has been a dismissive attitude from the Authority in their response to the letter.
MM&P have said the Panama Canal Authority continues to 'turn a blind eye to the danger'. It refuses to hire more staff, operates a fleet of tugs that is too small and technically deficient and ignores industry standard work and rest hours. This has led to fatigue, injury and death with the MM&P noting at least three fatalities from stress-induced heart conditions and two cases of stroke (in which the individuals survived).
MM&P says the Panama Canal Authority has allowed conditions to deteriorate so badly that it is only a question of time until a disaster strikes. The union points out that, unlike the situation in the Suez Canal, if a single lock gate were to be breached it would take months to repair and the Panama Canal would be closed to all Neopanamax vessels. This is a disaster that could easily lead to a humanitarian catastrophe, says MM&P.