Police brutality won’t fix Panama Canal’s safety crisis

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.

The tug boat captains represented by La 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 gunshots 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 Ricáurte Vázquez, 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.”

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”.

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