Population: 3,300,000
Capital: Panama
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

Trade union persecution increased during the year. A wave of repression ended in the assassination of two members of the SUNTRACS union. Several demonstrations were repressed, union leaders were wounded and others were arrested. Construction companies developed new strategies to avoid complying with their collective agreement.

Trade union rights in law

Protection of and limitations on organising: Private sector workers have the right to form and join unions of their choice. The Ministry of Labour is legally bound to promote the creation of trade unions where they do not exist. Trade union protection is guaranteed to leaders of unions, including those still being formed.

There are limitations, however. Only a single trade union is authorised per establishment. Trade unions may only open one branch office per province and a minimum of 40 members are required to set up a branch union, a number excessive by international standards. All members of a trade union executive must be Panamanian. Trade union protection only covers 11 union members.

The right to strike: For a strike to be legal, an absolute majority of workers in the enterprise concerned must vote in favour. Strikes can only be called to demand an improvement in working conditions, in relation to a collective agreement or in protest at the repeated violation of legal rights. Strikes cannot be called to protest about government policy, to demand an increase in the minimum wage or to demand union recognition. Federations, confederations and national centres may not call a strike.

A 1996 decree weakened the right to strike by imposing a binding arbitration and conciliation process, establishing a long list of posts in which strikes are banned and giving the Labour Ministry discretion to extend that list.

Trade union rights in the public sector: Public sector workers do not have the right to form unions. Based on the 1994 Civil Service Act, civil servants may form "associations" and engage in collective bargaining, but only if they have a minimum of 50 members, and they can only form one association per institution. The association can in turn form federations and engage in collective bargaining.

The government may put an end to strikes in the public sector by imposing compulsory arbitration. The law requires State employees to provide a minimum service, and the government can requisition at least 50 per cent of employees for this purpose in essential services, the list of which includes transport, thereby exceeding the ILO definition of the term.

Special restrictions: The law governing the autonomous Panama Canal Authority prohibits the right to strike for its employees but does allow unions to organise and bargain collectively on specific matters such as working hours and safety conditions.

In the maquiladoras, all labour disputes are subject to compulsory arbitration. A strike is only considered legal after 36 working days of conciliation are exhausted. If this requirement is not met, striking workers may be fined or dismissed. The law governing Export Processing Zones (EPZs) also applies to call centres.

A 1986 law excluded from the category of "worker" any person who receives raw materials from companies and processes them in their homes. They are thereby denied all workers' rights, including the right to form a union.

Trade union rights in practice and Violations in 2007

Background: The year began with the signing and ratification of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. It has not come into force, however, because it is still awaiting ratification by the US Congress, despite the intense lobbying of the Martín Torrijos administration. The high cost of living, deterioration in working conditions, and projects concerning mines, dams and hydroelectric plants were the principal causes of conflict between the labour movement and the government.

Labour flexibility limiting the right to organise: The deregulation of employment contracts and increased labour flexibility in practice continue to be the principal obstacles to the creation and functioning of trade unions.

In most private companies the majority of contracts are temporary, often of just three months' duration, and they are renewed repeatedly over several years.

It is common practice to sub-contract temporary workers to avoid complying with the laws protecting permanent workers, or to hire workers for three months, not renew the contract for a month, and rehire them the following month. These practices are in themselves a strategy by employers to avoid union organising. Given those insecure conditions, coupled with the threat of dismissal, the majority of workers, in order to hold on to their jobs, decide not to organise.

Yellow unions opposed to collective agreements: As a way of neutralising the more active unions and negotiating working conditions that fall below existing ones, companies themselves encourage the forming of trade unions in parallel with existing unions with whom they have signed collective agreements, thus gradually deteriorating and eliminating workers' rights.

Another strategy to avoid complying with collective agreements is to dismiss unionised workers and hire foreign workers under inferior conditions.

Labour Ministry complicit through its silence: The Ministry of Labour has made no attempt to encourage trade union organising, despite the stipulation to that effect in the law. On the contrary, it has failed to react when confronted with violations of the right to organise and ignores complaints and warnings from unions, while accepting and legitimising yellow and employer-sponsored unions. This has led to the unions accusing the Ministry of being responsible for the deaths of trade union leaders in the construction industry.

EPZs: There are still no collective agreements in the export processing zones.

Government has still not complied with Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling: In January the government offered 20 million dollars as final compensation to 270 public sector workers, dismissed in December 1990 for taking part in a march organised by their union coordinating body, the Coordinadora de Sindicatos de Empresas Estatales. (This was known as the Baena Ricardo case.) The workers complained that this offer still did not comply with the requirements of the ruling against the State of Panama issued in February 2001 by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The offer did not correspond to the amount of compensation required, nor did the government comply with one of the principal orders: that it reinstate the workers in their previous or similar posts. By the end of the year, the ruling was nearly eight years old and had still not been complied with.

Mass dismissal for joining an alternative union: On 16 April the National Industrial Union of Supermarket Service Company, Food Wholesalers and Retailers Workers' Union of Panama protested at the mass dismissal of 100 workers from the Melo Group. It complained that the reason for this mass dismissal was the workers' decision to join the union, which presented itself as an alternative to the employer-sponsored union protected by the chamber of employers.

Yellow unions created to dismantle the SUNTRACS-CAPAC collective agreement: The construction workers' union SUNTRACS has a collective agreement with the chamber of employers ("Cámara Panameña de la Construcción", CAPAC) that protects all the employees of the signatory companies, whether or not they are union members. In some companies such as Constructora Maqtec S.A., Constructora Norberto Odebrecht S.A. and the Corcione group, the employers promoted the creation of trade unions in order to sign collective agreements with them with conditions inferior to those contained in the SUNTRACS agreement. The companies concerned demand that the workers join the employer-sponsored union when they sign their employment contract.

Wave of repression results in killing of two trade unionists: On 13 August a group of dismissed workers affiliated to SUNTRACS went to the offices of the Constructora Odebrecht company, in the Vía Transítmica, Chilibre, to demand their reinstatement and the payment of their salaries. They were interrupted and attacked by members of the National Construction and Drilling Industry Workers' Union of Panama – SITICOPP – which had been denounced as a yellow union. The assailants carried knives, stones and sticks which they used to attack union leaders Ronald Adamson and David Niño. Trade unionists Carlos Colindre and José del Castillo were also wounded.

One day later on 14 August on the Panama-Colon motorway project, in the middle of demonstrations to ask for better occupational safety standards, a hired gunman shot and killed Osvaldo Lorenzo Pérez, the SUNTRACS union representative for the REC company. The trade unionists denounced the killer's links to the Brazilian company Norberto Odebrecht, which had hired him to suppress the protest.

On 16 August, another trade unionist was murdered on the Isla Viveros construction site. This second killing occurred when a group of workers were heading to the Maqtec S.A. company to present a formal resolution by the Balboa municipal authorities ordering the company's closure for failing to comply with municipal bylaws and to demand the payment of the wages owed. Police officers prevented them entering the premises by throwing tear gas canisters and firing gunshots at them. One of the workers, Luigi Argüeles, was killed by a handgun fired by Sergeant Manuel Moreno of the National Police.

The two murders remain unpunished. Following an intense protest campaign and international pressure, the Minister of Labour, Reynaldo Rivera, and the Government Minister, Olga Goltcher, were removed from their posts. The campaign accused them of being complicit in and responsible for the killings. The government has not linked their removal from their posts to any responsibility for the deaths however.

Detentions and arrest warrants: Raymundo Garcés, the SUNTRACS Press Secretary, was detained during the 16 August demonstrations. His video recording of the events was confiscated.

On the same day someone delivered a firearm to the Public Ministry and lodged a complaint against Saúl Méndez, the SUNTRACS Organising Secretary, claiming that the union leader had hired him to fire the gun during the march. Despite the fact that the sworn statement of the complainant was contradictory, the Public Ministry accepted the complaint and ordered the detention and investigation of Saúl Méndez.

The detention order against Saúl Méndez was not carried out owing to a precautionary measure known as "country arrest". It was thought that his life could be in danger in prison, as it would be possible for those responsible for the other murders to coordinate his assassination with other inmates. When someone is placed under "country arrest", they do not go to prison but they may not leave the country before their trial has taken place. At the end of the year his trial had still not taken place.

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