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Panama's Watchdog Agency Investigates Canal Tug Dispute

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File image courtesy Unión de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta

By MarEx 2018-05-11 15:29:00

The International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots reports that Panama's government watchdog agency, the Autoridad Nacional de Transparencia y Accesso a la Informacion (ANTAI), is investigating tensions between the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) and the canal's tug captains. 

On April 12, a group of 22 tug masters refused to work after the ACP reduced the number of deckhands on their tugs from three to two. The authority has threatened many of these captains with dismissal. Their union, the Unión de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta, contends that ACP's manning reductions are unsafe, citing the challenges of towing post-Panamax vessels through the new Panama Canal locks. 

The union is a local affiliate of the Masters, Mates & Pilots, and in a letter to Panama's embassy in Washington, MM&P international president Don Marcus echoed the captains' concerns about safety and process. "The decision to reduce the size of the crews was made unilaterally, without consulting the mariners who work aboard the tugs. The ACP refuses to conduct meaningful discussions on the issues. Worse, it is unlawfully retaliating against tug captains by firing them for refusing to perform operations that are inherently unsafe," Marcus wrote. "The fact that a deckhand was killed on the Canal in a line-handling accident in November . . . underlines the gravity of concerns regarding the risk of a reduction in the number of crew during the most challenging and dangerous phase of operations in the expanded locks."

The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) has also criticized the ACP, alleging that the authority has put cost reductions over safety and turned down opportunities for dialogue with the unions. “The move from the Canal Authorities to reduce the manning on the tugboats and thereby reducing the Canal’s costs . . . is too simplistic and only gives a short-term financial gain while the most important element appears to be overlooked or ignored, namely safety of the workers and the safe transit of the vessels,” said Nick Bramley, chair of ITF's Inland Navigation Section. 

In a statement, the Autoridad Nacional de Transparencia y Accesso a la Informacion (ANTAI) confirmed that it is investigating the dispute. "The information presented by the tug captains of the ACP to ANTAI has duly documented the situation that occurred on April 12 at the Aguas Claras locks. This forces us to initiate an investigation," said ANTAI executive director Angelica Maytin.

Maytin's agency has also questioned the ACP's governance structure, particularly with regard to the level of protection it provides its board members. ANTAI has called for the removal of two members of ACP's board, Nicolas Corcione and Henri Misrachi, who together missed a combined 125 ACP meetings from 2015 through April 2018, according to the agency's calculation. Separately, Corcione and Mizrachi are under investigation by public prosecutors in connection with Panama's "New Business" / Editora Panama America money laundering scandal.