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16 Apr 2024

USA: Baltimore bridge collision shipping firm linked to historic labour rights & safety issues

Wikipedia Commons

On 26 March 2024, the Dali, a 948ft (289m) container ship lost power soon after leaving the port of Baltimore en route to Sri Lanka, and crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge, causing it to collapse. While authorities were able to divert some traffic in the two minutes between the ship's Mayday call and the collision, saving lives, several vehicles and people plunged into the cold waters of the Patapsco River. Six migrant construction workers, who were performing routine maintenance work on the bridge at the time of its collapse, were missing and presumed dead more than 24 hours after the collapse. The workers were men in their 30s and 40s, from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

According to reporting by The Guardian and The New York Times, the Dali had previously been in a collision in 2016 while leaving the port of Antwerp, Belgium, and an inspection last year at a port in Chile found that the vessel had a deficiency related to ‘propulsion and auxiliary machinery’. The New York Times also reported that the company that owns the ship - Grace Ocean - had previously been linked to labour rights violations on other vessels, including wage theft and workers being kept on ships for months longer than contractually agreed. At the time of collision, the Dali had 22 crew members on board, all Indian nationals. None were reported to be injured. According to The New York Times, any factors about the crew, including fatigue, will be considered by the National Transportation Safety Board in its investigation of the incident.

According to Alexandra Wrage, the president and founder of Trace, a group focused on anti-bribery, compliance and good governance, ship ownership structures are designed to maximise opacity and minimise accountability. “There are some good actors in this space, but shipping is the Wild West from a compliance and accountability perspective,” Ms. Wrage said [as reported in The New York Times] “And when compliance and accountability aren’t priorities, issues like environmental standards, labor practices and health and safety often aren’t either.”

Grace Ocean, Synergy Marine (the management company of the Dali, responsible for managing the crew and maintaining ships) and Maersk, the company that chartered the ship were approached for comment by journalists.

We leave with so many dreams...here, immigrants have the hardest times and do the hardest jobs, and then we’re the first to break.
Migrant from El Salvador, in a Washington Post interview on the Baltimore bridge collision

In March, after the collision, The Washington Post released an article naming the company who employed the migrant workers as Brawner Builders.

The family of one of the workers presumed to have died says the worker was undocumented, and that he contributed to the economy by doing work US citizens do not do. The article emphasises how undocumented workers often fear seeking support, such as medical treatment, due to the risk of deportation. Brawner Builder's Executive Vice President says the company does not employ undocumented workers, and that while the workers were not members of a union, they received a 'substantial benefits package' and the families of the workers would be 'well taken care of'. The company declined to answer questions on what support or money will be provided.

The article says 39% of construction workers in Baltimore and Washington are migrants, and that Hispanic workers have higher fatality rates, particularly in the construction industry. The article also contains an interview with Casa, a Maryland-based Latino migrant advocacy organisation, who highlights the need for more legislation to protect vulnerable workers.

In April, Reuters said a criminal probe has been launched by the FBI into the incident.