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2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Panama

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 8 June 2011
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Panama, 8 June 2011, available at: [accessed 18 December 2017]
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.

Population: 3,500,000
Capital: Panama
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

Law 30 weakening trade rights gave rise to a number of protests, during which several people were killed and scores were injured. Many trade unionists were arrested or forced underground. The deputy general secretary of the national construction workers' union SUNTRACS (Sindicato Único Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria de la Construcción y Similares) was arrested and went on hunger strike.


There are a number of problematic areas in the law despite basic trade union rights being recognised. Freedom of association is guaranteed in law. However, public sector workers do not have the right to form unions but only "associations", and the minimum membership requirements for creating both associations and unions are excessive. There can only be one association per institution, and only one branch per province. While trade union protection is guaranteed to union leaders, it is only extended to 11 union members. Furthermore, while both private and public sector workers may engage in collective bargaining, new enterprises are not compelled to conclude collective agreements during the first two years of operation.

The right to strike is recognised in the Constitution, but a strike must be agreed upon by an absolute majority of the workers in an enterprise. Strikes can only be organised in relation to certain specific issues, and federations, confederations and national centres may not call a strike. In the public services, the law provides for extensive minimum service and also stipulates that compulsory arbitration can be imposed. For services that are deemed essential, the government can requisition at least 50% of the employees. Finally, strikes are prohibited for employees governed by the Panama Canal Authority, in EPZs and in new enterprises.


Background: A climate of instability, social and political violence prevailed throughout 2010 in Panama. The country's relative stability and supposed democratic credentials were seriously affected by the government's violent conduct. The new legislation approved in 2010 includes the Imprisonment Act, popularly referred to by Panamanians as the "Jailhouse" Law, which criminalises social protest and under which those exercising the right to demonstrate can be jailed. Even the Ombudsman urged the government to reflect on the consequences of the bill.

First collective agreement with DHL in Latin America: In May, the airline staff union SIELAS (Empleados de Líneas Aéreas y Similares de la República de Panamá) managed to seal the negotiation of the collective agreement between SIELAS and DHL Aéreo Expreso S.A, which constitutes a major trade union breakthrough, this being the first collective agreement secured with DHL in the region.

Barriers to collective bargaining: The government continues to promote the negotiation of collective pacts with non-unionised workers instead of collective bargaining agreements.

Union appeals to ILO: The leadership of the national construction workers' union SUNTRACS (Sindicato Único Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria de la Construcción y Similares) lodged a complaint against the government of Panama over the fundamental human and trade union rights violations suffered by SUNTRACS members and other citizens. The complaint details various trade union rights violations, ranging from acts of interference and fundamental human rights violations to physical assaults and persecution. These continual practices point to the fact that the acts of repression are not isolated incidents but a systematic strategy deployed by agents of the state.

Trade unions protest against Law 30, securing its repeal: On 12 June, Law 30 was passed then sanctioned by the president on the 16th of the month. It was popularly branded the "Chorizo" Law, being an attempt to stuff into one case the reform of six laws and three national codes without consulting any sector of society. In terms of amendments to the labour legislation, Articles 12 and 20 of the law were aimed at suppressing the check-off system (automatic deduction of union dues from salaries) and the payment of dues by workers covered by collective agreements, rights that have been enshrined in the Labour Law since 1971.

It also attempted to undermine the exercise of the right to strike, authorising non-striking workers, managers and trusted staff to work during a strike, rather than requiring the total closure of operations, as previously provided for by law. In addition, under Law 30, the National Council of Organised Workers, CONATO, would have been replaced by a trade union structure dependent on the State Executive.

The trade union battle, which mobilised the entire country against the law, forced the government to table a dialogue that ultimately led to the legislation being carved up into eight separate laws, the content of which was negotiated and agreed on with civil society and trade union organisations. One of these laws was Law 68 of 2010, which repeals all the labour provisions of Law 30 and re-establishes the rights originally enshrined in the Labour Law; it also stipulates that only the management and trusted employees can enter the company during a strike and that production must be halted.

Repression and killings during strike against Law 30 in Bocas del Toro: In August, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concern at the serious acts of violence perpetrated during a protest held on 8 July in Changuinola, Bocas del Toro. Banana plantation workers in the province of Bocas del Toro called a strike starting on 2 July to protest against the approval of Law 30 on 12 June, sanctioned by the President on 16 June.

On 8 July, the security forces violently crushed a demonstration organised as part of the protest against aspects of the law concerning trade union rights and the right to strike, killing at least six people, injuring around 700 and arresting hundreds more. The violence was targeted at the banana and construction workers from the Panama Canal in Colón. Trade union leaders from the construction union SUNTRACS and the National Council of Organised Workers (CONATO) were also arrested. Warrants for the arrest of trade union leaders were issued; some were illegally detained and later released after paying a fine. The persecution forced several trade union leaders underground. At the end of the year, 17 SUNTRACS leaders were still facing legal proceedings; eight are members of the current Executive Committee, and include Genaro López, Jaime Caballero, Marcos Andrade and Marcos Guzmán.

Deputy general secretary of SUNTRACS arrested: On 11 July, Jaime Caballero, deputy general secretary of SUNTRACS and a member of the National Executive of the National Front to Defend Social Security (FRENADESSO), was arrested in Ancón during the police repression in Bocas del Toro, and taken to the prison of the Judicial Investigation Department (DIJ), where he was jailed alongside common prisoners. After being detained for several days, Caballero started a hunger strike. He was transferred in a military plane from Chiriquí to Panama City where he was denied access to a lawyer. On 15 July, he was released after the Supreme Court of Justice issued a ruling to the Assistant Prosecutor's Office.

Right to unionise violated at religious schools: Several workers were dismissed from religious schools during 2010 for having joined a union.

Civil servants' rights violated: There was little change in the situation already denounced by the civil servants' federation FENASEP (Federación Nacional de Servidores Públicos), as the government presses ahead with the imposition of laws and measures clearly aimed at weakening the legislation on the rights and freedoms of public workers. The laws passed have deformed the civil service career and eliminated tripartism by not allowing FENASEP to take part in dialogue. The minimum number of workers required to form a union in the public sector has been put back up to 50.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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