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The Ever Given showed the importance of tug and towage workers, but their industry continues to cut dangerous corners

31 Mar 2021
Photo: Suez Canal Authority
Photo: Suez Canal Authority

The six-day blockage of the Suez Canal and its welcomed refloating has shed new light on the critical job done by tug and towage workers. But unless industry arrests the current ‘race to the bottom’ and workers’ safety concerns are addressed, the world could be in store for another Ever Given-type crisis sooner than we think.

For a number of years the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has warned that a major accident on the Panama Canal could be imminent due to significant reductions in manning and excessive overtime by a short-staffed workforce.

The situation in Panama mirrors that across the globe when it comes to the tug and towage industry.

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. Forced to do the same amount of work (or more), with smaller budgets, these contract squeezes result in job losses and increased pressure on the workforce.

Our affiliates have been clear that these job losses result in larger workloads and increased responsibilities for fewer workers. Unions globally are seeing corners be cut, local wages falling, working conditions deteriorating, increased anxiety among members, and growing risk of accident and injury at work often due to increase fatigue.

One problematic practice driving this ‘race to the bottom’ is seen in how major shipping companies such as Maersk, CMA CGM, Evergreen and COSCO group their contracts with towage companies. The leading corporations demand unsustainable discounts from these contracts, making it incredibly difficult for tug boat companies to receive fair returns for the services they deliver with the crew that they need to operate safely.

Even when the tugboat and towage workers are directly employed, such as by the Panama Canal Authority, the climate of contract squeezing has become pervasive enough for executives to demand similarly unsustainable cuts from their towage department.

Repeated calls have come from the ETF Tug Committee and the ITF Latin America Tug Committee warning companies and governments to the dangers of this race to the bottom. We have been clear that the industry must stop cutting back on maintenance, on reliable equipment, on the renewal of fleets, and on the training of crew members. It is also time to return to safe manning levels and proper periods of rest and safe levels of work.

It is our hope that the publicity offered by the events of the Ever Given provide an opportunity for the world to understand the critical role played by these vessels and the women and men who operate them.

The excellence of the tug boat operation to free up the passage of trade in the Suez Canal demonstrated the highest standards of professionalism. Yet this operation could easily have gone wrong, as refloating a major containership requires tremendous skill. Without such skill, the vessel could have become unstable and containers lost potentially resulting in even further delay to unlocking global supply chains.

The Suez Canal witnessed over 450 vessels queued up in just the first two days, each one needing assisting vessels. It is too often forgotten that without tugs and towage, ships cannot pass through locks, canals or even dock in any given seaport unassisted. They are also critical for salvage operations, firefighting, rescues and even weather reports. They are a backbone of global shipping, and that backbone is under severe pressure.

We urge the leaders of the shipping, logistics and freighting industries to recognise the unsustainability of the current trajectory of the tug and towage industry. Workers have spoken up and told the industry that hazardous working conditions is a disaster waiting to happen.

This situation needs the full attention of the shipping community, and of governments before another critical waterway is affected by the scale of disaster that befell the Suez last week. The risk grows with every budget cut and contract squeeze.

Heed the call of frontline workers who see this calamity coming and are speaking up. We know that it is high standards, not a race to the bottom, that is needed to secure the safe and stable operation of the global tug and towage industry, and ultimately the global supply chain.

The world has the opportunity to learn the lessons of the Ever Given on the importance of tug and towage workers and to rebuild the backbone of shipping to power the global economic recovery from Covid-19. Let’s not miss this opportunity to put this industry back on to onto a safe, even keel.


Jacques KERKHOF Chair ETF Tug & Towage Committee                                               

Ivan De La Guardia ITF Tug & Towage Expert LATAM

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