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
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
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 Notitrans.com. “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)