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Health and safety

Cost-cutting is increasing risks of another Suez-type shutdown

15 April 2021

The six-day blockage of the Suez Canal has shone a light on the essential role tug and towboat operators play in keeping the world's supply lines open. But two experts on tugboats and towage – Jacques Kerkhof and Ivan De La Guardia – warn that unless critical safety concerns along major waterways are addressed, the world could be in store for another Ever Given-type crisis sooner rather than later, Nautilus Federation affiliate Masters Mates and Pilots reports.

'A global race to the bottom has been ongoing in the industry, and in 2021 it is continuing with highly profitable corporations exerting downward pressure on pricing for critical tug and towage contracts in every corner of the globe,' Mr Kerkhof and Mr De La Guardia wrote in an article published in a recent edition of The Maritime Post.

Major shipping companies are grouping their contracts with towage providers and then demanding discounts that smaller companies cannot sustain.

As a consequence, it is extremely difficult for tugboat and towage operators to achieve fair returns if they use the number of crew needed to operate safely.

Even in cases in which tugboat and towage workers are directly employed, contract squeezing has become so pervasive that staffing is often being cut to unsustainable levels.

'We have been clear that the industry must stop cutting back on maintenance, equipment, fleet renewal and training,' they say.

'It is time to return to safe crewing levels and proper periods of rest and safe levels of work.

'We urge leaders of the shipping, logistics and freighting industries to recognise the unsustainability of the current trajectory.

'Hazardous working conditions are a disaster waiting to happen.'

The International Transport Workers' Federation commissioned a study in 2018 of fatigue among Panama Canal tugboat captains.

They interviewed 55 captains, a third of the total number working on the canal.

Nearly one in three captains interviewed said they had worked up to 20 hours in a single shift, and six of them reported falling asleep at work.

The tug captains say their workload has doubled since the elimination of the motorised 'mules' that moved ships in the old locks and the opening, two years ago, of the new locks.

  • Jacques Kerkhof is the chair of the European Transport Workers' Federation Tug & Towage Committee.
  • Ivan De La Guardia is a long-time Panama Canal tug master and an official of the MM&P affiliate Union de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta de Panama (UCOC).


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