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

Another trade union leader from the national building workers' union SUNTRACS was murdered against a background of extensive and serious violations of Panamanian workers' rights.

Trade union rights in law

Freedom of association: 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 referring the dispute to 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 2008

Background: One of the principal problems facing Panama in 2008 was poverty, which affects 40% of the population. The growth in real estate, the thriving Colón Free Trade Zone and the boom in the service sector, including banking and tourism, have not benefitted all Panamanians. Experts says that 16.7% of Panamanians live in extreme poverty because they have no fixed salary, are unemployed or work in the informal economy. At the same time serious workers' rights violations persist, including the murder of a construction workers' leader.

Trade union leader murdered: Workers in Panama's construction industry face serious safety problems. On Tuesday 12 February, in the Colón province, Al Iromi Smith, leader of the building workers' union Sindicato Único Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria de la Construcción y Similares (SUNTRACS), was shot and killed by an anti-riot unit of the National Police. He had been involved in a protest against poor safety standards in the sector. Two other workers were injured in the confrontation and about 30 were arrested.

Workers forced to resign: According to the Union of Security Agency Workers (UNTAS), G4S S.A. and G4S Valores S.A., subsidiaries of the multinational Group4 Securicor (G4S), used anti-union measures to try to persuade some workers to give their written agreement to terminate their employment contracts by "mutual consent".

Panama continues to flout IACHR ruling: In February 2001 Panama was sentenced by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the "Baena, Ricardo et al vs. Panama" case to compensate for damages caused to 270 people unfairly dismissed from their public service posts after they took part in a workers' demonstration, for which they were unjustly accused of complicity with a military gang.

Nearly seven years later, after the IACHR had issued two more legal opinions and six resolutions reminding Panama of its duty to comply with the ruling and change its regulations, Panama has still not fully complied with the court ruling.

Leader loses trade union immunity: The Estrella Azul workers' union (SITEEA), a member of the National Federation of Workers' Trade Union Organisations (FENOSIT), reported a violation of trade union rights by the Estrella Azul (Industrias Lácteas S.A.) milk products company, following the withdrawal of the trade union immunity of union leader Leonidas Ariel Trujillo, granted by the High Labour Court. Procedures foreseen in the collective agreement were not taken into account. The union appealed to the Third Chamber of the High Court for the ruling to be annulled on the grounds that due process had not been respected.

Employer-sponsored unions used to counter collective agreements: As a way of neutralising bona fide trade unions and negotiating working conditions that fall below existing ones, companies themselves have increasingly encouraged the forming of yellow unions in parallel to the existing ones. They have then proceeded to sign collective agreements with the yellow unions, as a means of gradually undermining 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 in violations: 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.

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