Overworked tugboat workers are reaching breaking point: ITF

Last year, Troy Pearson and Charley Cragg died while towing a barge for Rio Tinto in rough, icy waters. Yesterday, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) premiered a short film, Tug Workers Sound the Siren, that tells the story of Pearson’s death, and exposes the human cost of an industry which the trade union claims is in crisis.

A new report has also been released alongside the film that suggests safety and conditions of employment have deteriorated dramatically in the tug sector recently, driven down by industry consolidation and what the ITF claimed was “cartel-like behaviour” from the major shipping lines.

“The deaths of Troy Pearson and Charley Cragg are a tragedy. But painfully their story is not unique. Many other families have lost their loved ones unnecessarily in this industry. Today we mourn Troy, Charley and all workers killed at work, it simply should never happen,” said ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton.

Cotton warned today that the tug and towage sector is likely to be the next frontier of the supply chain crisis that has grabbed media headlines over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, saying that shipping companies were increasingly using the leverage gained from consolidating to drive down tug and towage rates to unsafe and unsustainable levels.

“Consolidation in shipping has led to consolidation in towage: fewer and fewer tug operators are able to survive the pressure of lower rates and in-port competition. In Europe, for example, the number of major players has dwindled from 10 to just three in less than a decade, and two of those are owned by shipping giants,” said Cotton.

“Globally, we are witnessing companies attempting to tear up long-held collective bargaining agreements. We are seeing rising casualisation in the sector. Many workers have been forced into independent contractor status. Companies are reducing investment in fleet upgrades and maintenance, and even reducing manning levels,” said Jacques Kerkhof, ITF’s towage committee chair.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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