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Tugboat

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While most everyone in the labor writing world is having hot takes on Amazon, Sarah Jaffe continues to explore the myriad ways people are getting screwed over in industries far off our radar screen, such as tugboat workers:

When we talk about global shipping, most of the conversation revolves around container ships, which have only grown more massive in recent years. But the safe travel and docking of those behemoth vessels relies on comparatively tiny tugboats and workers like Woods, who risk their safety every day to guide the big ships in and out of ports, through canals, and sometimes on long distances along coasts. When the Ever Given infamously got stuck in the Suez Canal, pictures of the tugboats working to free the vessel became popular memes, but Woods and his colleagues saw little change in appreciation for their work.

Instead, they continue to struggle against a global “race to the bottom” that sees tugboat operators squeezed by a consolidating industry, and pressure to cut costs that winds up costing lives. Because of unions like the ILWU, and internationally, the work of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), tugboat work can be a good, family-sustaining job. But the labor crunch is hitting even well-unionized workforces.

The tugboat companies have demanded that tugboats run with bare-bones crews of two or three people, which Woods says is just asking for catastrophe. “I’m in the water, how is my captain going to effectively rescue me while trying to operate the vessel?” In the year since the Ingenika sank, the ILWU and the families of Cragg and Pearson have demanded stricter regulation and safety provisions on small vessels. But “there’s downward pressure on maintenance and all those other things, because now everybody’s fighting over rates,” Woods says.

Taking a tugboat out of commission to do maintenance work on it would cost the company money, so operators wind up skimping on necessary upkeep, assuming that they won’t be inspected. Woods points out that with the number of inspectors currently on staff with Transport Canada, “you could see an inspection every nine years if they decided to show up, if they got to every vessel in Canada, which they don’t.”

In British Columbia, tugboats often move vessels carrying hazardous materials, sometimes for long distances—petroleum products down to Oregon, for example. During longer jobs, workers are supposed to have six hours on, six to rest, and six on watch, but with understaffed crews, that often leaves exhausted workers, like on the Ingenika, manning the controls. Woods notes that the barges are sometimes “just a flat box with tanker trucks strapped to the deck, and then they’re towing up and down the coast. You get into weather, that barge heels a little bit, and that tanker truck’s in the water.”

This isn’t just theoretical. In 2007, heavy equipment, including a fuel truck, slipped off a barge in the Robson Bight ecological reserve, spilling diesel into the water. Woods worries that undersized, understaffed tugboats create “an oil spill waiting to happen.”

Unsafe work is a problem throughout the global economy and it receives far too little attention. We have created an entire globalized world based upon supply chains and then just blithely go along our days and not worry about just how vulnerable those supply chains are thanks to the profit-taking that hurts workers. So this isn’t just about Canadian tugboat workers. It’s about the entire global shipping industry. In conclusion:

Tugboat workers, like others along the supply chain, are weighing their options as they watch corporate profits spike while their employers lowball them at the bargaining table. “The supply chain can be fixed,” Jason Woods says. “They need more people and they need to pay a living wage.” At the moment, though, the workers feel that their employers would rather risk their lives than spend more money.

Yes. Yes they would.

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