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Wednesday, November 26 2014 @ 11:15 PM EST

Panama Canal Suspends All Maintenance Work

Canal Daily Operation By Wilfredo Jordán Serrano for La Prensa - The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has suspended regular maintenance work on the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks to ease the passage of ships waiting at the entrances of the Panama Canal. As of yesterday there were 98 ships waiting to transit the canal confirmed the ACP. According the the ACP, the backlog has been caused by an increase in the arrivals of ships significantly from 38.2 per day last year to 43 ships per day in the present period. Some ships have had to wait in the anchorage for more than a week to be able to make the transit, with the exception of those ships that have paid an additional fee for a scheduled transit spot. (more)

Editor's Comment: First of all, I'm delighted to see the Panamanian mainstream media has finally picked up on this story. The backlog in the Panama Canal has been there now for more than six weeks and it started in February. At least now the local media is aware of the issue and hopefully because of this article in La Prensa the rest of the Panamanian media machine will pick up on the issue and begin to report on it. And if they look hard enough they will eventually find the same truths I'm finding, I suspect. This article simply parrots the ACP line and then admits the reported could not find a source within the Panama Canal Pilots workforce to talk to. So, although it's one-sided reporting, at least it's a start and much better than completely ignoring the story.

"Practicos" of the Panama Canal: The union of the Panama Canal Pilots is called the "Unión de Prácticos del Canal" in Spanish, so they got that part right and actually confused me. I thought they would have been called "pilotos" in Spanish, but not so.

Undeclared Work Slowdown: There are several ways workers can effect their employers through both formal and informal actions. In this situation there is no way the pilots are going to officially recognize or admit they are conducting and organized or sanctioned work slowdown. If asked on the record they will just deny it on one hand and say no, they are doing their jobs specifically as ordered, and then on the other hand will continue to ask the ACP to have their contract to be renewed. My sources within the workforce of the Panama Canal pilots have specifically told me "this is not an organized or officially declared strike or work action," and "it's more of an individual thing." Then in the next sentence they remind me that according to the organic law creating the ACP it specifically says Panama Canal workers can not strike, although the right to strike is guaranteed in the Panamanian constitution, so there's a conflict in law there. So, the message I'm getting is that "we're officially not on strike or conducting an organized work slowdown, one law says we can't strike anyway, but the constitution says we can, but in any case we just want a new contract."

"Rabbi Blanca Mentality": In investigating this story on several occasions I have heard pilots complaining about what they call a "rabbi blanca mentality" on the part of the upper levels of the management of the Panama Canal, and especially in reference to the Administrator of the Panama Canal. Historically Panamanian managers have a tendency to treat their workers very poorly and in fact they are not very good managers at all, particularly with regards to Human Resources. Much of this "attitude problem" stems from their environment - due to the traditionally high levels of unemployment in Panama there has always been a seeming endless supply of low skilled workers. Basically poor and ignorant Indians for the most part, Panamanian managers have always had to sort through the applicants at the door who are lined up to take the job. They could get away with treating these people like absolute crap and if they don't like it they can take a hike. The manager just reaches into the line and grabs the next poor sucker who comes along to replace the last guy. Eventually the manager finds a nice, submissive, compliant robot who will do exactly what he's told for the rest of his life, willing to live happily (or at least survive) under the crushing thumb of virtual managerial dictatorship.

I'm Not Making This Up: No shit, that's what happens every day in 99% of the workplaces in Panama. Just look into the eyes of the workforce - they are not empowered, at all. In fact they are taught and trained not to think for themselves and that any action or risk will be mercilessly punished. Stick your neck out and the boss will cut your head off. That's the message. It's taken awhile for the "old" gringo mentality to slowly get washed out of the Panama Canal Administration, and it's now being replaced by newer Panamanian managers who are accustomed to Panamanian managerial practices and attitudes.

A Different Culture: The Panama Canal Pilots are a crusty old and somewhat weird breed. Most of them "grew up" staring at the brown waters of the Panama Canal and many of them were born and bred in the former Panama Canal Zone. There is now a transition taking place within the workforce in that the older guys are retiring out and they are slowly being replaced by a steady stream of younger Panamanian Canal Pilots. The ACP has to keep a steady stream of new pilots in training to replace the older guys. And in addition they will now have to expand their workforce to allow for the expansion of the Panama Canal. A brand new pilot in training makes about $55,000 per year so it's a pretty good job to start. The older guys who have been doing the job for an entire career make a lot more. But the point is this - it has always been in their culture to go the extra mile - to be exactly the opposite of that complicit mindless robot Panamanian managers expect. So, to a certain extent this is a conflict of cultures. And, the newer and younger guys have been "infected" to a certain extent by the older guys who taught them everything they know.

Administrators Don't Drive Ships: Administering the Panama Canal is a strategic job. They have to see the whole picture, worry about the expansion as well as all of the other details of keeping the Panama Canal operating. On the other hand the newsletter of the Panama Canal Pilots association is called "The Knuckle." In nautical parlance a "knuckle" is "a pronouonced edge formed by a change in the form of the shell of a hull, especially between the upper nearly vertical portion of the fantail and the lower portion." And then of course its not lost on me that in the same definition there are explanations and definitions for "brass knuckle" as well as "knuckle down" and "knuckle under." These are the guys who actually put the ships through the canal, where the prop meets the water so to speak.



Not A New Organization: From their website - "The Panama Canal Pilots' Union was established on January 31, 1921, as Local 30 of the National Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots. This is the labor organization charged with the responsibility of representing all Panama Canal pilots on issues related to our labor relationship with our employer, the Panama Canal Authority. The Panama Canal Pilots Union is an affiliate member of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF). The Panama Canal Pilots' Association is a professional, non-profit organization, created with the purpose of supporting pilots in their quest for professional advancement. The Panama Canal Pilots' Association is an active member of the International Maritime Pilots' Association (IMPA). Panama Canal Pilots have provided pilotage to transiting vessels through the Panama Canal since its opening to maritime commerce in 1914. We also provide pilotage in the Ports of Balboa and Cristobal, There are over 250 Panama Canal pilots in active service."

The Backlog Is Not Going Away: In this article in La Prensa the ACP is reporting a backlog of 98 ships. So it's not going down at all and the level of backlog has been maintained at about 100 or so for more than six weeks, now going on two months. The ACP is in denial on one hand and they are severely conflicted in the *information they are putting out. For example they advertise to their customers that they have a capability to put 42 ships per day through the canal. But then they say that this backlog of ships is caused by the arrival of 42 ships per day. Here's the truth - when the ACP treats the pilots like shit their capability to put ships through the canal drops by about six ships per day. Presto, change-o, there's the source of your backlog. So I guess now the ACP is going to lower their capacity projections down to the 37 ships or so they have been able to get through the canal with "Robot Panama Canal Pilots." That's the real story, and hopefully the Panamanian media will pick up on that.

(Article Continues)

Besides having suspended all routine maintenance work the ACP has assigned additional personnel in the locks, as well as additional tug boats and lock "mules" to ease transits.

The Panama Canal is supervising the situation and assures its clients they have taken all feasible measures to standardize the transit levels, according to an official press release issued by the Vice President of Operations of the ACP, Manuel Benítez.

Nevertheless, the publication Panama-Guide.com relates this backlog (the number of ships waiting to transit) to a lack of desire to work on the part of the practitioners of the Panama Canal, because they are unhappy with their present wages.

In the publication it is mentioned that recently the practitioners approached the administration of the Panama Canal to request a wage increase due to the increases in the prices of fuel and the cost of living.

Although this newspaper tried to obtain an opinion of the Union of Practitioners of the Channel, there was no answer.

los arribos subieron de 38.2 a 43. ACP suspende mantenimiento por alta demanda de tránsitos

La administración asignó personal y equipos adicionales en las esclusas para agilizar las operaciones.

LA PRENSA/ David Mesa COLA. La semana pasada se acumularon hasta 106 buques en fila. Ayer había 98 barcos, sumando los que se mantenían en la entrada del Pacífico y en la entrada del Atlántico. 1007048

Wilfredo Jordán Serrano wjordan@prensa.com

Los trabajos periódicos de mantenimiento en las esclusas de Miraflores y Pedro Miguel fueron suspendidos por la Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (ACP) para agilizar el paso de los buques que se mantienen esperando en las entradas de la vía para transitar.

Hasta ayer había 98 buques en fila en las entradas del Pacífico y Atlántico para realizar su tránsito por la vía, confirmó la ACP. El crecimiento en la demanda de tránsito aumentó debido a que el arribo de barcos promedio subió significativamente, de 38.2 el año pasado a 43 barcos por día en el actual periodo fiscal. Algunas embarcaciones han tenido que esperar en fila hasta una semana para poder hacer el tránsito, con excepción de aquellas que han pagado el cupo de reserva de tránsito con anticipación.

Además de suspender los trabajos de mantenimiento, la ACP asignó personal adicional en las esclusas, así como remolcadores y locomotoras para agilizar los tránsitos.

El Canal de Panamá supervisa la situación, y aseguró a sus clientes que ha tomado todas las medidas factibles para normalizar los niveles de tránsito, indica un comunicado enviado a las navieras por el vicepresidente de Operaciones de la ACP, Manuel Benítez.

Sin embargo, la publicación Panama-Guide.com relaciona este backlog (número de barcos en espera de tránsito) con el desgano en el trabajo que realizan los prácticos del Canal de Panamá, debido a que están disconformes con sus salarios actuales.

En la publicación se menciona que recientemente los prácticos fueron a la administración del Canal de Panamá a pedir un aumento de salario, debido al incremento del precio del combustible y el costo de vida.

Aunque este diario trató de lograr una opinión de la Unión de Prácticos del Canal, no hubo respuesta.

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