Last Updated: Thursday, 18 December 2014, 07:48 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Panama

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Panama, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa433c.html [accessed 18 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
 

 

Panama is a representative democracy with an elected executive composed of a president and two vice presidents, an elected 72-member legislature, and an appointed judiciary. President Ernesto Perez Balladares took office on September 1 at the head of a multiparty coalition. He was elected in May in elections conducted under the auspices of the independent Electoral Tribunal. International observers described the elections as free, fair, and violence-free.

Panama has had no military forces since 1989. The Legislature approved a constitutional amendment October 4 to abolish a standing military. The amendment went into effect October 24 and contains a provision for forming a "temporary" force under certain national security circumstances. The Panamanian National Police (PNP) under the Ministry of Government and Justice are responsible for law enforcement. The Judicial Technical Police (PTJ) perform criminal investigations; the PTJ is under the Public Ministry, headed by the Attorney General. There continued to be credible reports of abuse of detainees and prisoners by members of both police forces.

Panama has a free enterprise, service-oriented economy which uses the U.S. dollar. It grew at least 5 percent in real terms in 1994, the fifth consecutive year of growth. Poverty is pervasive, however, with great income disparities between rich and poor, and continued high unemployment and underemployment.

Principal human rights abuses continued to be prolonged pretrial detention, an inefficient and often corrupt criminal justice system, and overcrowded, oppressive prisons. There were also three extrajudicial killings in January. Violence against women remained serious, a problem compounded by socio-cultural factors that inhibited recognition and treatment. The Government continued to prosecute some of those responsible for abuses committed during the 21 years of dictatorship from 1968 to 1989. For example, in May a court sentenced three former National Guardsmen to 15-year prison terms for the 1971 kidnaping and murder of Hector Gallego, an activist Roman Catholic priest.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings perpetrated by government agents. A presidential decree regulates the use of force by members of law enforcement organizations. The authorities are investigating three unrelated incidents in January in which seven different PTJ agents may have violated this decree by using deadly force to stop fleeing suspects. After an independent investigation, a review board relieved two of these officers from duty, administratively reassigned two others pending outcome of internal investigations, and referred two officers to the PTJ's legal advisor for consideration of criminal prosecution. The seventh officer was in PTJ custody awaiting trial at year's end.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated abductions or disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits use of measures which could damage the physical, mental, or moral integrity of prisoners or detainees. There were no substantiated reports of torture of either prisoners or detainees during 1994. Anecdotal evidence suggests police still use physical violence to control detainees, particularly during initial arrest and holding phases.

The PTJ and the PNP have offices of professional responsibility that act as internal affairs organs to hold officers accountable for their actions. Both have staffs of independent investigators and administrative authority to open internal investigations which, upon completion, go to their respective inspectors general for submission to review boards. The review boards, in turn, recommend to the service's director the appropriate action; the service director has the final authority to determine the disposition of each case. Penalties can include reduction in rank, dismissal, and, in severe cases, criminal prosecution. As of December, the PTJ had investigated 153 cases of all categories of misconduct; it dismissed at least 52 officials for their actions and forwarded 16 cases for possible prosecution in the courts. Similarly, as of December, the PNP had investigated 967 cases of all categories of misconduct; it imposed administrative sanctions on 157 officials for their actions and forwarded at least 46 cases for possible criminal prosecution.

Due to a growing number of use-of-force complaints lodged against the PTJ, the Supreme Court, in collaboration with the Attorney General, named a commission in March to revise training procedures, including firearms instruction, for PTJ personnel. As part of a 3-week orientation course, the PNP provided 20 hours of instruction to incoming recruits on laws and procedures to protect the human rights and legal guarantees of citizens. Future PTJ police cadets are to receive human rights instruction as part of their basic training.

Prison conditions throughout Panama remained deplorable and threatening to prisoners' health. Most prisons were built in the 1950's and are dilapidated; medical care is inadequate; and escape attempts were frequent. There were credible reports of corruption by guards, as well as abuse of prisoners. The National Corrections Administration has authority to discipline prison guards for abuse of detainees or prisoners with either penal or civil sanctions, depending on the severity of the abuse. In practice, however, few prisoners or detainees have used these measures to seek redress for alleged abuse by prison guards.

In order to relieve overcrowding, the legislature passed a bill on December 21 which would quicken the pace of prosecution, thereby reducing the number of pretrial detainees. The Ministry of Government and Justice has also begun a program of conditional release of certain categories of prisoners. Neither of these measures has yet had a significant effect in reducing overcrowding.

In March prisoners at the David public jail in western Chiriqui province held a hunger strike to protest the lack of prison space and the slow movement of their cases in the judicial system. The strike quickly spread to the public jail in Colon and to Panama City's notorious Modelo prison, provoking hunger strikes at both facilities. The Government promised to have qualified personnel visit the prisons at least once a month to check on the welfare of both detainees and prisoners. It also promised to quicken the pace of prisoner transfer to the new 1,000-bed La Joya facility, even though it still lacked basic amenities, such as furniture, sufficient potable water, and a trained administrative staff.

The Government has made only limited efforts to comply with these promises. It did arrest the Modelo Prison Director on December 15 on charges of corruption. However, the prison overcrowding that caused the earlier hunger strikes still persists. Although the National Corrections Department depends on PNP personnel, who are not properly trained, to supply its guard force, the guard response in the riots at Modelo prison in March and again in December was restrained and appropriate. The authorities transferred administration of La Joya prison to trained correctional officers. For the first time, prison administrators also classified inmates, a process intended to determine the appropriate security level needed for prisoners while also separating them from pretrial detainees. Although this was a significant step forward, the La Joya prison houses only a small fraction of the total prison population. All other prisons use PNP guards and intermingle convicted prisoners with pretrial detainees.

Conditions on Coiba Island Penal Colony continued to be deplorable. Approximately 75 percent of the 550 prisoners still on Coiba await trial, and the majority will have served almost two-thirds of their potential sentences before reaching trial. Despite a plan to transfer prisoners to other detention facilities, Coiba continued to receive new prisoners from other prisons as part of an effort to defuse the violence caused by overcrowding. Prisoners and detainees reportedly suffer greatly from malnutrition and shortages of potable water. Medical care is practically nonexistent. Reversing a decision late in the Endara administration to place Coiba under police control, the new Government named a civilian administrator for Coiba. The guard force, however, continued to consist of police guards instead of civilian correctional officers. Geographic isolation, plus lack of mail and communications, separated detainees from their attorneys and caused many to miss trials.

Conditions at women's prisons were better than those at men's prisons. Still, there were credible allegations that guards and staff at the Women's Rehabilitation Center (CFR) sexually abused female detainees and convicts. Female prisoners also reportedly suffered from overcrowding and poor medical care. Guards and administrators allegedly trafficked in telephone access, medicine, and personal hygiene items. A human rights group credibly charged in July that the prison administration intentionally turned a blind eye toward such activities by guards and staff. This led to the investigation and temporary removal from office of the CFR director in July. The Perez Balladares Government named a permanent administrator in September.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution stipulates that arrests must be carried out with a warrant issued by the relevant authorities, except when a person is apprehended during the commission of a crime. The law requires the arresting officer to inform the detainee immediately of the reasons for arrest or detention and of the right to immediate legal counsel, to be provided by the State for the indigent. There were charges of arbitrary detentions by the new Government during a September operation dubbed "energy and courtesy" that featured police roundups of street criminals in heavily populated areas of Panama City and Colon. The PNP suspended four officers for excessive use of force in this operation but found no grounds for the arbitrary detention charges. Human rights groups confirmed that there had been few instances of police abuse in the operation.

The Constitution provides for judicial review of the legality of detention and mandates the immediate release of any person detained or arrested illegally. The law prohibits police from detaining suspects for more than 24 hours without bringing them before a competent authority. In practice, the authorities rarely met legally mandated time limits and often violated the 24-hour time limit for detention by several days. The preliminary investigation phase often lasts from 2 to 4 months, due to extensions granted by the Public Ministry and additional communications with the court. While the Public Ministry can legally grant extensions up to 14 months in most cases, it often allows case processing to exceed the approved extensions, leaving the accused in incommunicado detention. This problem is exacerbated by an inefficient case tracking system and a slow, inflexible notification phase.

Extended pretrial detention of those charged continued to be one of Panama's most serious human rights problems. According to government statistics, pretrial detainees comprised 79 percent of the prison population as of August, about the same proportion reported in July 1993. Analysis of these statistics indicates almost 25 percent of the total prison population is under detention beyond legally permissible time limits. According to public defenders, the average period of pretrial custody for a defendant was approximately 16 months; pretrial detention in excess of the maximum sentence for the alleged crime was common. A legal mechanism exists to hold the Government accountable in cases where a detainee spends a significant amount of time incarcerated only to be found innocent. Although the redress procedure is not excessively complicated, few former detainees seek redress for their time in detention.

The Constitution prohibits exile, and there were no reports of forced exile in 1994.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The President appoints nine Supreme Court magistrates to 10-year terms, subject to Legislative Assembly confirmation. The Supreme Court magistrates appoint appellate court judges, who, in turn, appoint circuit and municipal court judges in their respective jurisdictions. The Attorney General, who heads the Public Ministry jointly with the Solicitor General, appoints the superior and district attorneys. At the local level, municipal mayors appoint administrative judges similar to justices of the peace. These justices exercise jurisdiction over minor civil and criminal cases in which they may impose fines or sentences of up to 1 year. This system has serious shortcomings: Defendants lack adequate procedural safeguards, the officials need not be (and normally are not) attorneys, and some allegedly engage in corrupt practices. In practice, appeal procedures are nonexistent. More affluent defendants tend to pay fines while poorer defendants go to jail, one of the chief factors leading to current prison overcrowding.

The Constitution provides that persons charged with crimes have the right to counsel and are presumed innocent until proven guilty. If not under pretrial detention, the accused may be present with counsel during the investigative phase of the proceeding. Judges can order the presence of pretrial detainees for the rendering of statements, amplifications, or confrontation of witnesses. Trial proceedings are conducted orally with the accused present. The Constitution establishes trial by jury in some circumstances; by law, however, jury trials are not an option in most cases.

The Constitution obliges the Government to provide public defenders for the indigent. Although many public defenders are still appointed after the investigative phase of the case, many more public defenders than in past years were assigned to cases prior to commencement of the investigative phase, increasing the defense's opportunity to present evidence. Public defenders' caseloads remained staggering, numbering hundreds of cases per attorney and seriously undermining the quality of representation.

Panama continued to hold political prisoners in 1994. Eduardo Herrera Hassan, an ex-member of the former Panama Defense Forces (PDF) who became director of the National Police force and reportedly attempted to foment action against the Endara Government in December 1990, was held without charges until he received a presidential pardon in September. In addition to Herrera, the Government has held an additional 30 to 50 persons in pretrial detention since December 1990, for offenses related to the coup attempt. The presidential amnesty of September 23 released some of these prisoners, but many remain in extralegal detention.

The judicial system continued to prosecute those responsible for human rights and other abuses committed during the Noriega period. The Government brought to trial, convicted, or sentenced a number of the most notorious defendants. In January courts sentenced former Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) members Felipe Camargo, Luis Cordoba, and Nivaldo Madrinan to 5-year terms in prison for the 1988 illegal arrest and torture of Eduardo Sanchez Pena, an anti-Noriega activist. In May Madrinan, former head of the National Investigation Directorate (DENI), received an additional 5-year prison term for his role in the 1971 murder of Colombian priest Hector Gallego. In September the courts found six ex-PDF members, including Camargo, guilty of human rights violations against anti-Noriega activists Alberto Conte and Leonardo Figueroa, as well as former anti-Noriega coup participant Milton Castillo. Over 25 cases are pending against ex-PDF major Felipe Camargo (convicted of human rights abuses both in 1992 and 1994). Ex-PDF major Luis "Papo" Cordoba and Lt. Colonel Madrinan, both defendants in the Spadafora trial, were also scheduled to stand trial for the 1985 kidnaping and torture of Dr. Mauro Zuniga, president of the National Civic Coordination, an organization opposed to the Noriega regime.

In June President Endara granted individual pardons to over 500 Noriega-era officials and politicians who had committed "political" crimes, i.e., support for antidemocratic policies. On September 23, President Balladares granted amnesty to 216 persons whom he described as having been convicted or detained for crimes of a political nature. He granted conditional release to 46 more detainees. The amnesty included five of the six suspects in the slayings of U.S. citizen Raymond Dragseth and U.S. Embassy employee Fernando Braithwaite, civilians the PDF executed during Operation Just Cause in 1989. This left only 1 of the original 23 defendants charged with either homicide, kidnaping, or conspiracy to stand trial in connection with these brutal killings.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the home and communications. The authorities may not examine personal documents, monitor communications, or enter and search private residences except by written order. However, there were credible complaints that PTJ agents failed to follow legal requirements for arrest and search warrants and instead conducted indiscriminate searches of entire apartment buildings or housing complexes. Such complaints continued during the first months of the Perez Balladares Government.

Despite the view of some that the Constitution prohibits all wiretapping, the Government maintains that wiretapping with judicial branch approval is legal. Under the guidelines established by new antinarcotics legislation passed in July, the Public Ministry may engage in undercover operations, including the use of "videotaping and recording of conversations." The Supreme Court will ultimately have to decide whether wiretapping is constitutional and, if so, under what circumstances.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Panamanians generally enjoy freedom of speech and press as provided for in the Constitution. Six national daily newspapers, 3 commercial television stations, 2 educational television stations, and over 95 radio stations provide a broad choice of informational sources; all are privately or institutionally owned. While many media outlets took identifiable editorial positions, the media carried a wide variety of political commentaries and other perspectives, both local and foreign. Panamanian and foreign journalists worked and traveled freely throughout the contry, and the population had access to foreign media.

There were no substantiated cases of Government harassment of journalists. The Government has legal authority to place both direct and indirect restrictions on the media but took no such actions in 1994. This election year was characterized by a high level of official tolerance of the media, which openly reported on candidates and their platforms.

Libel is a criminal offense subject to fines and up to 2 years in prison. Opinions, comments, or criticism of government officials acting in their official capacity are specifically exempted from libel prosecution, but a section of the law allows for the immediate discipline of journalists who show "disrespect" for the office of certain government officials. The Government did not use the antilibel provisions of the law to restrict freedom of the press, but the existence of the law may inhibit some writers' self-expression.

President Balladares took steps to abolish certain laws which restrict freedom of the press. The media opposed these steps since complete abolition of the laws would also end many press privileges. Among these laws is one which establishes a censorship board. There were no reports of the board taking any restrictive actions in 1994.

The law provides for academic freedom, which was freely exercised in public as well as private universities.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides the rights of peaceful assembly and association, and the Government generally respects these rights. No authorization is needed for outdoor assembly, although prior notification for administrative purposes is required. Panamanians have the right to form associations and professional or civic groups without government interference. They may form and organize political parties as they like, though parties must meet membership and organizational standards in order to gain official recognition and participate in national campaigns.

During the 1994 election campaign, citizens frequently gathered and marched to protest as well as to support government policies. There were no reported instances of inappropriate government action against such marches.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for religious freedom. All religious groups are free to worship and to proselytize without government restriction or interference. Clerics are constitutionally prohibited from holding public office, except as related to social assistance, education, or scientific research.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution grants Panamanians the right to move freely within the country and to depart and return freely. These rights are respected in practice. There were no cases of forcible repatriation of refugees or asylees. A 9 p.m. curfew for minors under 18 years of age in Panama province, imposed in 1992, remained in effect although it was enforced mainly in high-crime areas.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides for a representative democracy with direct popular election by secret ballot of the president, two vice presidents, legislators, and local representatives every 5 years. The independent National Electoral Tribunal arranges and supervises elections. Panamanians enjoy the right to join any political party, to propagate their views, and to vote for candidates of their choice without government interference. The Government respected these rights throughout the year. The Electoral Tribunal implemented the June 1993 electoral reforms during the 1994 campaign, resulting in a transparently free national election.

There are no legal barriers to participation by women or people of African, Asian, or indigenous descent, but in fact their presence in senior leadership positions in government or political parties is not yet proportionate to their numbers within society. However, representatives of these groups are increasingly visible in midlevel political and governmental positions. The Government provides semiautonomous status to the San Blas reserve, populated mainly by indigenous Kuna Indians. San Blas has two representatives in the Legislative Assembly, proportionate to its population. Locally, the reserve is governed by tribal chiefs, who meet in a general congress twice a year.

A woman ran for president and finished second with over 28 percent of the vote. The newly elected President of the Legislative Assembly is a woman, and Panama City residents elected a woman as mayor. However, women held only 5 of 72 Legislative Assembly seats and 3 of 11 Cabinet positions.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Panamanian human rights organizations, including both church and secular groups, generally operated without governmental restrictions. These organizations carried out a full range of activities, including investigations and dissemination of findings. Human rights advocates generally had free access to government officials while investigating complaints. The Government did not favor an investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in response to a complaint filed about Operation Just Cause, but it did not obstruct inquiries related to the investigation.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, illegitimacy, social class, sex, religion, or political views.

Women

Women generally do not enjoy the same economic opportunities as men. The law does not recognize property in common, and divorced or deserted women are often left destitute. However, the Legislative Assembly approved a new Family Code in April which will recognize joint or common property in marriages. The new Code will take effect in early 1995 after the executive branch identifies the financial resources necessary to fund additional tribunals and related activities. Although the Constitution mandates equal pay for equal work, wages paid to women are often lower than those for equivalent work performed by men and increase at a slower rate. A United Nations report published in August noted that women occupy only 4 percent of the managerial positions in Panama. Although statistics are lacking, there are credible reports of sexual harassment, firings for pregnancy, and hiring practices based on age and "attractiveness."Domestic violence against women continued to be a serious problem. A late-1993 report by the reputable Center for the Development of the Woman estimated that victims report as few as 20 percent of the sexual assaults committed against women in San Miguelito and Panama City--two of the most densely populated areas in the country--to law enforcement authorities. The Foundation for the Promotion of the Woman released an informal study that stated that the emergency room of the largest public hospital in Panama City treated 1,222 domestic violence victims during 1993. As of September, that foundation itself assisted almost 400 victims of domestic violence or abuse. Other private groups and government agencies also operated programs to assist victims of such abuse. The Government acknowledged the seriousness of violence directed against women by signing the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women.

A number of private women's rights groups, including groups for indigenous women, concentrate on disseminating information about women's rights, countering domestic abuse, enhancing employment and other skills, and pressing for legal reforms. Indigenous women vocally criticized male government administrators and politicians for overlooking indigenous women's rights. In response to pressure by women's organizations, the Government created a Women's Department at the Ministry of Labor in July 1993 to report on abuses in the workplace as well as larger social issues. The office, however, was given little funding and has been relatively ineffective.

Children

The Tutelar de Menores, a quasi-judicial authority with additional administrative roles, plays a role in the protection and care of minors, but the Government has no specific office charged with protecting children's rights. A women's advocacy group reported that 72 percent of children are born from nonstable, short-term relationships. Many children suffer from malnutrition, neglect, and inadequate medical care. Juvenile courts report a high incidence of juvenile delinquency in major urban areas. The new Family Code calls for restructuring the underfunded and overtasked juvenile court authority that includes a rehabilitation program, an orphan care authority, and a juvenile detention authority. It also clarifies reporting authority and strengthens preventive protection powers in suspected juvenile abuse cases. It would also create a mechanism to record and report suspected domestic violence cases involving minors.

Indigenous People

Panama's indigenous population of approximately 194,000 (8 percent of the population) theoretically has all the same political rights as other citizens. The Constitution protects the ethnic identity and native languages of indigenous people, requiring the Government to provide bilingual literacy programs in indigenous communities. The Ministry of Government and Justice maintains a Directorate of Indigenous Policy. The Legislative Assembly in November created an indigenous affairs commission to address charges that the central Government has neglected indigenous needs. Despite legal protection and formal equality, indigenous people generally endured relatively higher levels of poverty, disease, malnutrition, and illiteracy than the rest of the population. In practice, language problems also weaken the formal protections offered by the law. Since indigenous populations infrequently master Spanish well enough to use appropriate legal terminology, they often have difficulty in understanding their rights undr the Legal Code. This language barrier also hamstrings efforts by indigenous people to defend themselves in court.

Panama's indigenous population, particularly the Embera, Choco, and Ngobe-Bugle, has grown increasingly vocal in requesting the Government to create more indigenous reserves. Indigenous people began to organize themselves but, despite a November 1993 convention for national coordination of indigenous peoples, met only limited success in lobbying the Government to protect their rights. The Government did grant the Embera tribes in Darien semiautonomous reserve status. The President appoints a governor who administers two nearby administrative areas in conjunction with tribal advisory councils. Medical care and potable water supplies on the reserves remain inadequate. Ngobe-Bugle groups complained that private landholders restricted access to tribal lands. The Government supported the landholders' claims that legal leases were still in effect.

Indigenous people have legal rights and take part in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation of natural resources. During the 1994 presidential elections, the Coordinator for Indigenous Peoples--an umbrella organization promoting indigenous rights--called upon indigenous peoples not to vote for any presidential candidates until the Government met demands for a Ngobe-Bugle reserve and development funds for indigenous organizations. Ultimately, however, few refrained from voting. The new Family Code recognizes traditional indigenous cultural marriage rites as the equivalent of a civil ceremony.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The law does not discriminate against any social, religious, or cultural group; however, naturalized citizens may not hold certain categories of elective office. While anecdotal evidence indicates that a constitutional provision reserving retail trade to Panamanian citizens originally was directed at Chinese immigrants, government officials have stated that it serves as a barrier to keep foreign retail chains from operating in Panama. The measure is not enforced in practice, however. Chinese and Indian residents of Panama, as well as Panamanians of Chinese and Indian descent, operate much of the retail trade, particularly in urban areas. Leaders of the over 100,000-member East Asian and South Asian communities credibly claimed that Panamanian society at large treats Panamanian-resident Chinese and Indians as well as Panamanian citizens of Asian origin as second-class citizens.

People with Disabilities

Government policy and support for citizens with disabilities is the responsibility of the Workers with Disabilities Office of the Department of Labor and Social Welfare. Created in 1980, it is responsible for placing qualified disabled workers with employers. The office was in charge of implementing a June 1993 executive order which provided employers with tax incentives for hiring people with disabilities. As of September, 89 employers had hired a total of only 166 disabled employees under this program. Although some public buildings and retail stores have access ramps for disabled people, no law or regulation compels the use of ramps or other easy-access features in public or private buildings.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Private sector workers have the right to form and join unions of their choice, subject to registration by the Government. However, unions have criticized government requirements for registration, including the minimum number of workers necessary for union formation (currently 51). With a large percentage of small shops and businesses having fewer than the required number of employees to meet registration requirements, many in the work force cannot organize. In addition, organized labor has complained that the Government has rejected efforts over the past 20 years to organize in several "strategic sectors" such as banking and the Colon Free Zone.

According to Ministry of Labor statistics, approximately 10 percent of the total employed labor force is organized. There are 256 active unions, grouped under 6 confederations and 48 federations representing approximately 79,000 members in the private sector. Although the new Perez Balladares Government has closer ties with organized labor than did the Endara administration, neither the Government nor the political parties control or financially support any unions. Union organizations at every level may and do affiliate with international bodies.

The new Civil Service Law of June 20 permits most government workers to form public employee associations and federations and established their right to represent members in collective bargaining with their respective agencies. It also provides most workers the right to strike, except for certain government workers in areas vital to public welfare and security, such as the police and health workers and those employed by the U.S. military forces and the Panama Canal Commission. It is too early to determine if the new Civil Service Law will meet, in practice, internationally recognized labor standards. Unionized employees of formerly private and telephone companies retain their original right to strike when certain reasonable criteria are met.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) reiterated in November 1993 its conclusion that the large-scale dismissal of trade union leaders and workers in the public sector under Law 25 of 1990 was a serious violation of the right to organize. Even though the Panamanian Supreme Court ruled that the dismissal of 120 of the 145 affected workers was legal (the other 25 were reinstated), the CFA again requested the Government to reinstate the greatest possible number of dismissed workers and union leaders. The new Perez Balladares Government began reinstating the workers, roughly half of whom have reportedly returned to work.

There were a number of private sector strikes in 1994 and, despite the prohibition on striking by public sector employees, several public sector strikes.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law affords most workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, and unions widely exercised it--104 collective bargaining agreements were concluded in 1993. The law protects union workers from antiunion discrimination and requires employers to reinstate workers fired for union activities. The Ministry of Labor has mechanisms to resolve complaints against antiunion employers. The new Civil Service Law allows most public employees to organize and bargain collectively and grants them a limited right to strike. The Labor Code establishes a conciliation board in the Ministry of Labor to resolve labor complaints and provides a mechanism for arbitration once conciliation procedures have been terminated.

There is an increasingly common practice of employing temporary workers in order to circumvent what are perceived by employers as onerous Labor Code requirements for permanent workers. One owner of a construction firm has noted that up to 35 percent of workers on some of his projects are employed on temporary contracts. These workers were discharged just short of the time necessary for them to be granted permanent status and then rehired in other job categories, thereby circumventing the Labor Code. None of these temporary workers received pension or other benefits. The practice of blank contracts is, according to union sources, becoming more widespread.

Labor law is equally applicable to export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Labor Code prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and neither practice was reported.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Labor Code prohibits the employment of children under 14 years of age as well as those under 15 if the child has not completed primary school; children under 16 cannot work overtime; those under 18 cannot perform night work. Children between the ages of 12 and 15 may perform farm or domestic labor as long as the work is light and does not interfere with the child's schooling. The Ministry of Labor enforces these provisions in response to complaints and may order the termination of unauthorized employment. The Government has not enforced child labor provisions adequately in the rural interior of the country, claiming insufficient staff to monitor abuses. Accord to a recent ILO report, 11,600 children between the ages of 10 and 14 are in the labor force--primarily in farm or domestic labor.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Labor Code establishes a standard workweek of 48 hours and provides for at least one 24-hour rest period. It also establishes minimum wage rates for specific regions and for most categories of labor. The minimum wage, last increased in January 1993, is $0.94 per hour in the districts of Panama, Colon, and San Miguelito, and for workers in financial services. It is not enough to support a family above the poverty level in Panama's relatively high-cost economy. Most Panamanian workers employed in urban areas earn the minimum wage or above, but most workers in the large informal sector earn below the minimum wage. Unions have repeatedly alleged that contractors operating in the Canal area pay less than the required minimum wage. The Ministry of Labor does not always enforce the minimum wage, due to insufficient human and financial resources.

The Government sets and enforces occupational health and safety standards. An occupational health section in the Social Security System is responsible for conducting periodic inspections of especially hazardous employment sites, such as those in the construction industry, as well as inspecting health and safety standards in response to union or worker requests. The law protects workers who file requests for health and safety inspections from dismissal. They also have the right to remove themselves from situations that present an immediate health or safety hazard without jeopardizing their employment. They are generally not allowed to do so if the threat is not immediate but may request a health and safety inspection to determine the extent and nature of the hazard. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing health and safety violations and generally does so. The standards are fairly encompassing and generally emphasize safety over long-term health hazards, according to organized labor sources. ealth issues, however, continue in the banana sector as well as the cement and milling industries.

Search Refworld

Countries