Tug industry “continues to cut corners” claims ITF

The Ever Given blockage of the Suez Canal in late March showed the importance of tug and towage workers, but their industry continued to cut dangerous corners, claimed the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) earlier this month.

It said that, unless industry arrested the current ‘race to the bottom’ and workers’ safety concerns were addressed, “the world could be in store for another Even Given-type crisis sooner than we think”.

The ITF said that for a number of years it had been warning 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.

It said that the situation in Panama mirrored that across the globe when it came to the tug and towage industry. The ITF termed it “a global race to the bottom” asserting that highly profitable corporations were “exerting downward pressure on pricing for critical tug and towage contracts in every corner of the globe”.

With tug companies forced to do the same amount of work (or more) with smaller budgets, Jacques Kerkhof, chair of ETF Tug & Towage Committee, said that these contract squeezes had resulted 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”, the ITF warned.

The ITF has claimed that major shipping companies, including Maersk, CMA CGM, Evergreen and COSCO, had grouped 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”, claimed ITF.

The federation said that “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.”

But the ITF warned that the Ever Given was, in many ways, a “near miss”.

It said that the operation could easily have gone wrong. Without the skill of the tug operators and the salvage team, the vessel could have become unstable, containers could have been lost, and potentially there could have been an even longer delay to unlocking global supply chains.