Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April 2014, 11:39 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Panama

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Panama, 30 January 1994, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa540.html [accessed 24 April 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's Constitution establishes a representative democracy with three branches of government – executive and legislative branches elected by direct secret vote for 5-year terms, and an independent judiciary – plus an independent electoral tribunal. The current Government, headed by President Guillermo Endara, is a multiparty coalition elected in May 1989, but unable to take office until December of that year.

Panama has no military forces. Law enforcement duties are the responsibility of the Panamanian National Police (PNP) under the Minister of Government and Justice. Criminal investigations are performed by the Judicial Technical Police (PTJ) under the Public Ministry, headed by the Attorney General, who is part of the judicial branch. There continued to be instances of abuse of detainees and prisoners by individual members of both forces.

Panama has a free enterprise, service-oriented, dollar-based economy. The economy grew at least 6 percent in real terms in 1993, the fourth year of consecutive growth following the downturn during the last years of the Noriega regime. Poverty is pervasive, however, reflecting high unemployment and underemployment in urban slums and in some rural areas.

During 1993, the Government strengthened some institutional protections and continued to attempt to prosecute those responsible for the human rights abuses during the previous 21 years of dictatorship. Manuel Noriega and two others were convicted and sentenced for the 1985 murder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora. Progress in key areas was slow, however, and Panama's principal human rights problems included prolonged preliminary and pretrial detention, an inefficient criminal justice system, and an overcrowded, oppressive prison system. Violence against women remained a serious problem.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

No cases of political killings at the hands of government personnel were reported.

There were, however, incidents in which Panamanian police used deadly force to stop fleeing suspects, which constitute extrajudicial killings, despite a 1992 presidential decree regulating the use of force by members of law enforcement organizations. In October a PNP officer fired at a fleeing suspect in Chitre, killing the man; the officer was arrested and at year's end was in prison awaiting criminal proceedings. In May indigenous demonstrators in Darien and Chiriqui complained about rough handling and the indiscriminate use of tear gas by police. Indigenous and other sources also claimed the death of protester Saturnino Aguirre was caused by a blow he received from police during the demonstration in Chiriqui; the facts of the incident remain unclear. Indigenous leaders filed charges against the PNP in the death of Aguirre. In other instances, police used birdshot against demonstrators at times when use of lesser force would have been more appropriate. In a February 4 police raid in the Curundu area, witnesses claimed police shot to death an 11-year-old boy during a "social protection" operation (see Section 1.f.). The PNP's Office of Professional Responsibility reported that the 11-year-old was killed during a shootout with criminal suspects. No evidence was found to indicate whether the boy was killed by the police or by others. No PNP officer was charged in the incident.

During 1993 the Government brought to trial two prominent human rights cases involving accusations of politically motivated murder and torture during the Torrijos and Noriega military dictatorships. In October a judge convicted Manuel Noriega (in absentia) and two other defendants for the 1985 murder and decapitation of Dr. Hugo Spadafora, a former Vice Minister of Health and a critic of Noriega. All three were sentenced to 20-year jail terms. In September a jury found seven other defendants not guilty, a decision which took nearly all observers by surprise and provoked riots and demonstrations. Four former military personnel went to trial in October for the 1971 disappearance and death of Catholic priest Hector Gallego, an organizer of agrarian cooperatives. In November a jury found three of them guilty of murder (the other defendant opted for trial by judge and was awaiting the verdict at the end of the year). The three found guilty were expected to be sentenced to from 12 to 20 years' imprisonment.

Other Noriega-era defendants continued to be charged and tried for offenses involving human rights abuses. Over 30 cases were pending against ex-Panama Defense Forces (PDF) Major Felipe Camargo, who had been convicted of human rights abuses in 1992. Ex-PDF Major Luis "Papo" Cordoba and ex-head of the National Investigation Directorate Nivaldo Madrinan, both charged but acquitted in the Spadafora trial, are to stand trial also for the 1985 kidnaping and torture of Dr. Mauro Zuniga, president of the National Civic Coordination (COCINA), an organization opposed to the Noriega regime. A trial date for the defendants in the Zuniga case had yet to be fixed at year's end.

Two major cases, however, remained stalled in the court system: the trial of 12 defendants charged with the kidnaping and murder of American citizen Raymond Dragseth, killed during the 1989 U.S. military action; and the trial of Manuel Noriega and 5 others charged with the summary executions of 11 PDF members after the October 1989 coup attempt against Noriega.

b. Disappearance

No known or alleged cases of politically motivated disappearances occurred during 1993.

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

The Constitution prohibits the death penalty as well as measures which could damage the physical, mental, or moral integrity of prisoners or detainees. In addition to the constitutional prohibitions, Panama has ratified international conventions on the prohibition of torture and has incorporated them into its domestic law. However, there continued to be scattered cases of brutality and use of excessive force by police. The PNP and the PTJ each maintained offices of professional responsibility to investigate claims of police misconduct, including human rights abuses. Sanctions included formal reprimand, disciplinary transfer, reduction in rank, dismissal, and, in severe cases, prosecution. Through August the PNP had investigated 130 cases; 6 officials were dismissed for their actions, and 4 cases were forwarded for possible prosecution in the courts. Through July the PTJ had investigated 45 cases; 5 agents were dismissed, and 2 cases were forwarded for possible prosecution in the courts. In November the PNP's Office of Professional Responsibility reported that the majority of complaints against police involved excessive use of force and inappropriate use of arms. The office also reported that 50 percent of public claims of police abuse were justified.

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. The PTJ had no such formal human rights instruction, although the Panamanian Committee on Human Rights (CPDH) organized periodic seminars on the need to respect human rights for new and veteran PTJ personnel. The CPDH provided the same assistance to the PNP.

Prison conditions throughout Panama remained deplorable and health-threatening. The physical plant of most prisons was dilapidated, medical care was inadequate, escape attempts were frequent, and there were credible reports of corruption and abuse of prisoners by guards. Overcrowding of prisons worsened as arrests added to the prison population. According to government figures, the total prison population as of July was 5,241, an increase of approximately 23 percent over July 1992. Modelo prison, Panama's largest, housed over 1,700 prisoners in a facility built for 300. Inmates reported that they slept in physical contact with their cellmates on bare cement floors that were perpetually wet from plumbing problems. There were frequent press reports of mistreatment of prisoners by guards and of inmate attacks on other inmates.

Addressing the inadequate prison facilities, the Government inaugurated the 1,000-bed La Joya prison in August, although the facility, which has less than 100 inmates, will not be fully operational until March 1994. Similarly, the Government announced the completion of a 150-bed wing in El Renacer prison in September, but officials reported in December that the facility was still not ready to admit prisoners.

There was a credible report from the CPDH in August that officials at a Panama City juvenile detention center were using excessive force to keep order at the facility. Inmates told of beatings for breaking the rules, and the director admitted that some juveniles were mistreated, blaming the problem on lack of space. While there were no deaths or serious injuries reported at the center in 1993, the Government took no concrete action in response to the CPDH report. The CPDH reported in December that the Supreme Court, which names the judge of Panama's Juvenile Court, favored moving responsibility for it from the Ministry of Government and Justice to the Judicial Branch, and might propose legislation to that effect. The CDPH believes such a move would help improve protection of children's rights.

Conditions on the Coiba Island Penal Colony continued to be deplorable and primitive. At least five inmate gangs existed on the island, and escape attempts were commonplace. Allegations of mistreatment at the hands of guards, however, notably diminished over prior years. Unlike the situation during the past several years, no inmates died as the result of gang violence on Coiba in 1993; one inmate died in an accident. Prisoners who attempted to flee Coiba more than three times were confined to antiquated cells with no sanitary facilities. Coiba's isolation hindered communication between inmates and their attorneys, often causing delays when its inmates were not transported to court on time.

There was no known evidence in 1993 that female detainees or prisoners were targeted for sexual assault or other abuse by police or prison guards. Conditions at women's prisons were better than those at men's prisons.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

There were no known instances of 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 detainee is to be informed immediately of the reasons for arrest or detention, and has a right to immediate legal counsel, to be provided by the State for the indigent.

The Constitution provides for judicial review of the legality of detention and mandates the immediate release of any person found to have been detained or arrested illegally. A suspect may not be detained legally for more than 24 hours without being brought before a competent authority. A preliminary investigation report by the police must be completed within 8 days, after which a prosecutor has a fixed period (which varies according to the number of suspects) to complete the investigative file for judicial review. The judge, in turn, has an additional 15 days to render a decision as to whether a trial is warranted. These time limits were often not met in practice. The 24-hour time limit was often violated; detainees were commonly held without charges for several days. Many cases exceeded the time limits as a result of further investigation, resubmissions, and, in some cases, additional communication between the court and the Public Ministry.

Extended pretrial detention of those charged continued to be one of Panama's most serious human rights problems. According to government statistics, the proportion of pretrial detainees in the prison population as of July was nearly 80 percent, up slightly from the same period in 1992. According to public defenders, the average period of pretrial custody for a defendant was 14 to 18 months; pretrial detention in excess of the maximum sentence for the alleged crime was not uncommon. Further, should a detainee who spent a significant amount of time incarcerated be found innocent, there are no legal means to hold the Government accountable. The Government took no meaningful action during the year to correct this situation.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The nine Supreme Court magistrates are appointed to 10-year terms by the executive branch and confirmed by the Legislative Assembly. The magistrates appoint superior court judges, who in turn appoint circuit court judges in their respective jurisdictions.

At the local level, administrative judges similar to justices of the peace are appointed by municipal mayors. There are two types of local judges, "corregidores" and "night" (or "police") judges. These judges exercise jurisdiction over minor civil and criminal cases in which they may impose sentences of up to 1 year. This system has serious shortcomings. The actions of corregidores and night judges are not regulated by the Code of Criminal Procedure, and defendants lack adequate procedural safeguards. These officials need not be (and normally are not) attorneys, and they operate outside the control of the judicial branch. Some allegedly engaged in corrupt practices. By law, jail sentences meted out by these officials can be satisfied by paying a fine; in practice, more affluent defendants pay fines and poorer defendants go to jail. Shortcomings in this system have a serious impact since the vast majority of minor criminal cases are handled by corregidores and night judges.

The Constitution provides that persons charged with crimes have the right to counsel and are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The accused may, if not under pretrial detention, be present with counsel during the investigative phase of the proceeding. Pretrial detainees can be requested to be present for the rendering of statements, amplifications, or confrontation of witnesses. Trial proceedings are generally conducted orally with the accused present. The trial phase is a mixed system (written and oral), which includes the call to trial, the presentation of evidence, and oral hearing. The Constitution establishes trial by jury in some circumstances; by law, jury trials are not an option in most cases.

The Government is constitutionally obliged to provide public defenders for the indigent. In late 1992, the public defenders' office reached its legislatively mandated strength of 36 defenders and maintained that number throughout 1993. Public defenders often were appointed after the investigative phase of the case had passed, limiting the defense's opportunity to present evidence. Public defenders' caseloads were staggering, numbering hundreds of cases per attorney and seriously undermining the quality of representation.

Personnel changes within the Attorney General's office in 1992-93 reduced efficiency and slowed processing of cases. Attorney General Rogelio Cruz was suspended from office in December 1992; several of his immediate collaborators also were dismissed. The Public Ministry was slow to undertake needed changes, including the implementation of a career law within the Ministry and improvement of the work and accountability of the first-level prosecutors.

Panama held no political prisoners in 1993. Various pro-Noriega and ex-PDF groups claimed that approximately 50 to 54 prisoners held for alleged crimes including torture, homicide, kidnaping, and other human rights violations during the period of military dictatorship were "political" prisoners. During the year, some of these prisoners were tried and convicted. Many others were still awaiting trial, most since early 1990. Although the judicial branch asserted that these cases are being expedited, progress was slow. (Some of the delays, however, stemmed from appeals and other legal motions on behalf of the defendants.) Families of victims of Noriega-era abuses vigorously protested bills to grant amnesty to all the defendants. The Legislative Assembly passed no amnesty bills in 1993.

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

The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the home and communications. Personal documents are not to be examined, communications monitored, or private residences entered and searched except by written order. However, so-called social protection operations in high-crime areas by the PTJ produced 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.

Despite the view of some that the Constitution prohibits all wiretapping, the Government maintains that wiretapping with judicial branch approval is legal. Media allegations in late November that former Attorney General Rogelio Cruz had ordered wiretaps in May 1991 prompted the CPDH to ask the Government to investigate. These allegations also touched off calls for the Supreme Court or the Legislative Assembly to define what constitutes a legal wiretap in the absence of laws and regulations adequately addressing the issue. The Government took no further action before the end of the year. No evidence was available to suggest that official wiretaps were used in 1993 for other than national security or criminal prosecution reasons; the debate centered on what legal limits should be acceptable.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

Panamanians generally enjoyed freedom of speech and press as provided for in the Constitution. Five national daily newspapers (an additional daily opened in September 1993), 3 commercial television stations, 2 educational television stations (1 run by the University of Panama, the other closely associated with the Catholic Church), and over 95 radio stations provided a broad choice of informational sources. While many media outlets took identifiable editorial positions, most carried a wide variety of political commentaries and other perspectives, both local and foreign. Local and foreign journalists worked and traveled freely throughout Panama, and the population had access to foreign media.

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. Several plans to annul or revise Noriega-era press restrictions did not reach final debate in the National Assembly by year's end.

In early March, the national censorship board initially banned the U.S. film "The Panama Deception," which was highly critical of the 1989 U.S. Operation Just Cause and the Endara Government. Despite the ban, portions of the film's narrative were published in newspapers. The ban, publicly criticized by President Endara and by at least one member of the censorship board, was rescinded on March 17.

Academic freedom was recognized and 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 meetings, 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 run in national campaigns.

Freedom of assembly was widely exercised in 1993; citizens frequently gathered and marched to protest government policies and to demand changes.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for religious freedom. No governmental restrictions impinge on the free exercise and proselytization of religious beliefs, nor on any particular religious groups. Although Roman Catholicism is predominant, Panama has no state religion. Clerics are constitutionally prohibited from holding public office except as related to social assistance, education, or scientific research. Foreign clergy are permitted to enter the country and enjoy the same religious freedoms as Panamanian citizens.

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 emigrate and return, and these rights are respected in practice. No known cases of forcible repatriation of refugees or asylum seekers occurred in 1993.

A 9 p.m. curfew for minors in Panama province, imposed in September 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 of the president, two vice presidents, legislators, and local representatives every 5 years. Technical arrangements for and the supervision of elections are the responsibility of the independent National Electoral Tribunal. Suffrage is a right and duty for all citizens; there is, however, no penalty for noncompliance. Voting is by secret ballot. Panamanians enjoy the right to join any political party, to propagate their views, and to vote for candidates of their choice without government interference. These rights were respected by the Government in 1993.

There are no legal bars to participation by women or people of African, Asian, or indigenous descent, although their presence in senior leadership positions in government or political parties is not proportionate to their numbers within society. However, numerous representatives of these groups, including five women, are in the Legislative Assembly and they are increasingly visible in mid-level political and governmental positions. San Blas, populated mainly by indigenous Kuna Indians, has two representatives in the Legislative Assembly.

During 1993 Panama began to prepare for the May 1994 general elections. Sixteen parties, representing a wide spectrum of political views, were legally recognized and are expected to participate in the campaign. In May, under the auspices of the Catholic Church, representatives of all political parties and parties-in-formation signed an agreement to conduct fair and peaceful election campaigns; the Church's Justice and Peace Commission began investigating alleged violations of this agreement. In June the Legislative Assembly passed electoral code reforms aimed at ensuring fair elections.

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

Several local human rights organizations, including both church and secular groups, operated without restriction or government interference, conducting investigations and disseminating their findings. International human rights groups also operated without government restriction.

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

The Constitution notwithstanding, women generally do not enjoy the same economic opportunities as men. Panamanian law does not recognize property in common, and divorced or deserted women are often left destitute. 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. There were credible reports of sexual harassment, threats of firing for pregnancy, and hiring practices based on age and "sexual appeal." Although the Center for the Development of the Woman found that Panama has a relatively high rate of female enrollment in higher education, many of these graduates are shunted into menial and lower-paying jobs; only 5 percent of the managerial positions in the country are occupied by women.

Domestic violence against women continued to be a serious problem. The Center for the Development of the Woman reports that the problem is widespread, but notes that few reliable statistics exist on the subject, given the tendency of many battered and abused women to disguise the true cause of their injuries. Although clinic personnel are required by law to report such abuse to the corresponding authorities for investigation, it is seldom done (except in cases of injuries caused by firearms). The Center further claims that police and judicial authorities are reluctant to interfere because domestic violence is widely seen as a "private" matter not subject to legal remedy. Penalties for wife beating and sexual abuse within marriage are also light and do not serve as a deterrent. Private groups and government agencies operated programs to assist victims of such abuse; the Center inaugurated a municipal center in August 1992 devoted exclusively to assisting abused women.

In response to pressure by women's organizations, the Government created a Women's Department at the Ministry of Labor in May to report on abuses in the workplace as well as domestic violence. The office receives funding through the Ministry of Labor's Social Welfare Branch; the Legislative Assembly rejected a request in late 1993 for separate funding in 1994. In early December, the Legislative Assembly's Children's Commission sent a "Family Code" bill to the full Assembly that, among other things, allows for property in common in marriages. The measure did not pass but it is expected to be taken up when the Assembly reconvenes in 1994.

Children

Panama is signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child; in 1991, the Convention was made part of Panama's domestic law. The Legislative Assembly created a Permanent Commission on Children's Rights in 1992 and the Commission drafted several measures in 1993 to protect children, including a bill to create a Ministry of the Family. None of the Commission's measures, however, have yet been approved by the Assembly. Although the Government was concerned about the rights of children, budgetary constraints limit provision of educational, health, and social services, particularly in rural areas. There was no unified government response to curbing domestic child abuse. The proposed Family Code bill (see above) incorporated measures to guarantee the protection and welfare of children and to assure the commitment of the Government to safeguarding their legal rights.

In response to the mistreatment of juveniles (see Section 1), the CPDH recommended creation of a government office to defend children's legal rights, independent of any ministry and funded by a separate budget.

Indigenous People

The Constitution seeks to protect the ethnic identity and native languages of Panama's population of about 194,000 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. Despite legal protection and formal equality, indigenous people generally had relatively higher levels of poverty, disease, malnutrition, and illiteracy than the rest of the population.

The Government provides semiautonomous status to the San Blas reserve, populated mainly by indigenous Kuna Indians. The reserve is governed by tribal chiefs, who meet in general congress twice a year. During 1993 Kunas objected to squatter incursions in areas of Panama province they considered their traditional lands and asked the Government to create another Kuna reserve. Ngobe-Bugle Indians in the provinces of Bocas del Toro, Veraguas, and Chiriqui also called on the Government to create a reserve. Bills to create the Kuna and Ngobe-Bugle reserves and an additional indigenous reserve in Darien province were introduced in the Legislative Assembly in mid-1993, but failed to gain approval.

The National Coordination of Indigenous Peoples of Panama – made up of Kuna, Embera and Ngobe-Bugle leaders – sponsored a national convention in November, the first since 1978, to discuss strategies to compel the Government to create reserves and foster development in Indian areas. Convention participants produced a document calling for the creation of a high-level government commission to implement greater government investment in indigenous communities in the areas of health and education. President Endara endorsed the document in a meeting with indigenous leaders in December. The Government incorporated into domestic law the Convention on the Indigenous Peoples' Development Fund during the same month. The fund provides economic support to the indigenous peoples of Latin America and was among the agreements reached at the second Ibero-American Summit in Madrid in 1992.

Indigenous groups claimed that the Government will only permit them to take part in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation of natural resources when it is coerced into doing so. The Governor of Panama province, for example, was held hostage for a few hours in April by a group of Kunas who argued this was the only means of drawing attention to their demands.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Panama is a racially and ethnically mixed country. People of African, Asian, and indigenous descent are politically active, but as noted in Section 3 underrepresented in senior positions in the Government and the private sector. The law does not discriminate against any social, religious, or cultural group. However, naturalized citizens may not hold certain categories of elective office, and the Constitution reserves retail trade to Panamanian citizens. While anecdotal evidence indicates that 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; Chinese operate much of the rural retail trade.

While there is no evidence to suggest any organized or government-sponsored discrimination against the 100,000-strong Chinese community, leaders of this community credibly claimed that Chinese were treated as second-class citizens by society at large. The rising Chinese immigration (both legal and illegal) has also raised assimilation problems. Many newer arrivals, seeking first to merge into a large and influential urban Chinese community, do not attempt to learn Spanish or to integrate into Panamanian society at large.

Religious minorities

Panama's sizable evangelical Christian and Jewish communities, together making up more than 10 percent of the population, take part in nearly all aspects of national life. The same is true of practitioners of other faiths, including Muslims, Hindus, and Baha'is. No evidence suggested that religious minorities were denied the right to practice their faiths or were discriminated against based on their beliefs.

People with Disabilities

Panama has a number of private organizations to assist people with disabilities, the largest of which is the National Association of Disabled People, founded in 1985. The Ministry of Labor's Department for Disabled Workers, created in 1980, is responsible for placing qualified disabled workers with employers. In 1993 the Department was in charge of implementing a June executive order which provided employers with monetary incentives for hiring people with disabilities, as well as an International Labor Organization (ILO) project to provide financial assistance to disabled people who wish to start small businesses. 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

Panamanian private sector workers have the right to form and join unions of their choice, subject to registration by the Government. According to Ministry of Labor statistics, approximately 24 percent of the private sector workforce is organized; it is estimated that 11 percent of the total employed labor force is organized. There are 284 active unions, grouped under 7 confederations and 48 federations representing approximately 85,000 members. From January to

November, 11 new unions registered with the Government. Some unions formerly affiliated with federations and confederations have chosen to function independently in recent years. Organized labor, which received various benefits from and was largely coopted by the military regime, is no longer identified with nor controlled by the Government or political parties. Union organizations at every level may and do affiliate with international bodies.

Most government workers are not permitted to organize unions or bargain collectively, but have the right to form representative associations. Workers in certain state-owned companies, such as public utilities, are permitted to organize unions, and these are among the strongest in Panama. Workers from the National Telecommunications Institute marched against government proposals to privatize the company; electrical company workers demonstrated repeatedly to oppose the dismissal of workers fired during a recent reorganization. Workers in other state-owned companies do not have the right to form unions but, like those in the rest of the public sector, have the right to form employee associations. FENASEP (the umbrella organization for the public employee associations) elected its executive committee in May and was in the process of reorganizing and reactivating its member associations. Of the 47 member associations under FENASEP, 24 were active and approximately 20 were in the process of reorganizing.

Workers, except government workers and those employed by the U.S. Forces and the Panama Canal Commission, have the right to strike. Employees of state-owned enterprises that were once private, such as the electricity and telecommunications companies, have the right to strike when certain criteria are met. For example, a notice of intention to strike must be served at least 8 calendar days in advance and strikers must continue working in reduced shifts to prevent public services from being completely paralyzed.

While Law 25 of 1990, enacted following the police uprising in December of that year, restricted the right of association by permitting the firing of public sector employees participating in actions contrary to "democracy and the Constitution," this law expired on December 31, 1991. The Supreme Court reviewed the cases of public sector workers fired pursuant to this law and at the end of 1992 ruled that 25 workers should be reinstated. In the remaining 145 cases, the Court determined that the dismissal of the workers was legal. Regretting that the parties concerned did not reach agreement, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) reiterated in November its conclusion that the mass dismissal of trade union leaders and workers in the public sector was a serious violation of the right to organize.

The ILO's Committee of Experts (COE) commented on positive developments with respect to administrative aspects of trade union organizations and the right to strike in 1993. The COE noted that the Government reduced the number of union documents it reviews and limited the effects of the provision of the Code obligating unions to allow the Government to inspect records at least every 6 months. In reference to restrictions on the right to strike, the COE noted the passage of Law 2 of 1993 which restored freedom of association and collective bargaining rights to workers in the private sector. In particular, the COE noted favorably that Law 2 of 1993 repealed the provision of Law 13 of 1990 that allowed for compulsory arbitration when the continuation of a strike could result in serious economic problems for a business.

The COE continued to criticize the exclusion of public servants from the right to organize and bargain collectively, noting that though the Government submitted an administrative career bill to the Legislative Assembly, the bill did not contain provisions establishing the right of public servants to organize. The COE asked the Government to take measures to address this issue as well as the excessively high number of members required to establish a union, the requirement that 75 percent of union members be Panamanian nationals, and the automatic removal from office of trade union officials dismissed from their jobs. The COE reported the Government's reply that it would consider in a tripartite forum possible reform of Labor Code provisions dealing with numerical and nationality requirements for union formation, as well as the automatic removal from office of a trade union officer in the event of his dismissal from employment. The COE also noted that Panama's Constitution and the Labor Code require that the executive board of a trade union be composed exclusively of Panamanians. The ILO judged that government legislation should be made more flexible to permit organizations to choose leaders without hindrance and should allow foreign workers to hold trade union office.

Despite the prohibition on striking by public sector employees, there were numerous strikes in both the private and public sectors in 1993. Since the unions did not follow the terms of the Labor Code, the Government considered the strikes illegal. From March 8 to April 1, sugar cane cutters of the Estrella Azul sugar company struck to demand an increase in the minimum wage. (The strike was unsuccessful and 270 employees were fired.) Following a strike by construction workers at the La Fortuna dam, Skanska agreed to pay workers a portion of wages accrued during the strike as well as previously owed overtime and extra wages. In June banana workers of the Chiriqui Land Company called a strike to oppose the Legislative Assembly's consideration of a bill which, among other things, would have enabled the company to purchase 5,000 hectares of land from the Government. (Ultimately the contract was rejected by the Assembly.) From May 31 to June 4, bus and taxi drivers called a strike to protest a transport law that established safety requirements and passenger rights.

Panamanian teachers called a work stoppage on August 18 to demand a $100 monthly salary increase and improved working conditions. After a 64-day stoppage, the teachers accepted minimal gains that included neither a salary increase nor pay for the time they failed to work. The teachers' unions still hope the Supreme Court will overrule President Endara's veto of a legislative compromise that would have given the teachers more of their original demands. After a brief September strike for payment of retroactive salary increases, National Institute of Telecommunications (INTEL) workers secured an agreement from the Government to resolve the issue. The increases went to all INTEL workers who had received a performance evaluation of "excellent." The Comptroller General had refused to pay the increase since 97 percent of the workers had been given this exemplary rating.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law affords most workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the right is widely exercised. Aside from the representative associations discussed above, most public employees are excluded from the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. Workers in the Colon Free Zone and the banking sector are effectively denied this right through the de facto exclusion of unions in these sectors. Unions have been excluded when their leaders were fired from their jobs; under the Labor Code, this automatically removes them from their positions as trade union officials. In 1990 and 1991, three officials of the National Bank Workers' Union were fired from Banco Cafetero and Chase Manhattan Bank for union organizing activities. The Government contended that because the union was not legally recognized – even though it had applied for legal certification in 1972 – its leaders were not eligible for reinstatement. The Government, however, brokered generous severance payments for the cashiered union officials to ameliorate the dispute. Nevertheless, the result is that the workers have been left effectively without an organizing force. During 1993, there were no attempts to organize in the banking sector or the Colon Free Zone.

On January 13, President Endara signed Law 2 of 1993 restoring full freedom of association and collective bargaining rights to workers in the private sector and repealing sections of Law 13 of 1990. Following more than 18 months of domestic and international pressure, the Government amended or repealed those portions of Law 16 (export processing zones – EPZ's) and Law 13 (collective bargaining) that the ILO viewed as restricting internationally recognized workers' rights. Law 2 calls for the resumption of collective bargaining for agreements expiring on or after January 1993, based on the agreement's original expiration date or the expiration of an extension under Law 13. Law 2 also repealed the controversial clause of Law 13 that provided for government-mandated arbitration. Over 85 private sector collective bargaining agreements were successfully concluded in 1993.

The amended export processing zone law (Law 25 of 1992) reimposed the obligation of firms operating in EPZ's to enter into collective bargaining agreements with workers. There are three licensed EPZ's in Panama: Isla Margarita, Ojo de Agua, and Telepuerto. Isla Margarita is the only EPZ in operation; it has one apparel assembly facility. No organizational attempts have been made in this facility.

The Labor Code prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers. Disputes or complaints may be brought to a conciliation board in the Ministry of Labor for resolution. The Labor Code provides a general mechanism for arbitration once conciliation procedures have been terminated. Under law, employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination are required to rehire workers fired for union activity. In practice, however, this does not always occur.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Labor Code prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and neither practice was reported during 1993.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The Labor Code prohibits the employment of all 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 nightwork. 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. Enforcement of these provisions is triggered by a complaint to the Ministry of Labor, which may order the termination of illegal employment. Child labor provisions were generally enforced, although less so in the interior of the country because of insufficient staff to monitor abuses.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Labor Code establishes a standard legal 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. Most Panamanian workers employed in urban areas earn the minimum wage or above. Nevertheless, Panama has a substantial informal sector, some of whose workers earn below the minimum wage. A tripartite commission (government, labor, and business) studied the minimum wage in 1992. On January 1, 1993, the minimum wage was increased 20.5 percent (to $0.94 per hour from $0.78 per hour) in the districts of Panama, Colon, and San Miguelito and for workers in financial services. The real purchasing power of the minimum wage increased by 9.3 percent, the largest real increase since 1972. The Ministry of Labor is charged with enforcing the minimum wage, although it lacks sufficient human and financial resources to execute its legal mandate fully. For example, labor leaders in the Canal area allege that contractors operating there pay hourly wages below the $2.90 required under Decree 52 of 1979 and Decree 3 of 1980 which cover employees of companies involved in the maintenance, protection, and use of the Canal.

The Government sets and enforces occupational health and safety standards. An occupational health section in the Social Security System (CSS) is responsible for conducting periodic inspections of especially hazardous employment sites, such as those in in the construction industry, as well as inspecting health and safety standards in response to union or worker requests. Workers who file requests for health and safety inspections are legally protected 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. An example is the dust hazard in the cement and milling industries; health concerns in these industries did not appear to be effectively addressed. Panama does not have a large industrial sector. The construction industry is the largest employer, and available figures in 1993 did not indicate an unusually high rate of accidents.

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