Construction Workers Take to Streets in Panama

February 22, 2008

PANAMA CITY – The Panamanian government said after mediating between representatives of a construction workers’ union and business leaders that it will issue a decree establishing tougher health and safety standards in that industry.

Labor Minister Edwin Salamin told reporters after the 10-hour meeting Feb. 15 that there was 95% consensus between the Panamanian Construction Chamber, or CAPAC, and the Suntracs construction workers’ union on the points that were discussed.

Safety and financial concerns led to protests this week that turned violent after one construction worker was shot and killed.

Dozens were wounded in demonstrations across the country and some 800 people were detained, 50 of whom remain behind bars and face criminal charges.

The workers, who wielded sticks and stones and barricaded main thoroughfares in Panama City, were demanding higher salaries adjusted to the rising cost of living, respect for union affiliation and laws that guarantee safer working conditions.

Salamin said that, in an effort to put an end to the labor conflict, the government this week would issue a decree containing the points on which the parties reached a consensus as well as those on which no agreement was reached, “taking into account the considerations of both sides.”

The decree will serve to implement the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Convention 167 on health and safety in construction, which Panama ratified last year.

Suntracs’ secretary general, Genaro López, said it is the government’s responsibility to establish safety norms for workers “so that the employers apply them.”

Referring to the possibility that a strike could be organized for next week, López said a decision will be made this week at a general assembly of the union, which represents 50% of construction workers nationwide.

The head of CAPAC, Eduardo Rodríguez, said that as far as he is concerned it is the government’s responsibility to attend to the workers’ demands in the areas of medical attention and job safety.

“We as employers can facilitate…the health programs, but we understand that it is up to Panama’s (state-run) health care system and the (government’s) occupational safety department to carry out the diagnoses and the follow-up,” he said.

Rodríguez said that “very significant” advances have been made in the construction industry regarding the establishment of safety standards and that, after the decree is issued, the sector will have to operate according to those norms.

He added that that will imply significant investment that construction companies are prepared to make.

Last July, Panama ratified ILO Convention 167 on health and safety in construction with the aim of reducing the number of workplace accidents in that sector. Suntracs’ figures indicate that 29 construction workers have died since last year in accidents that resulted from inadequate security measures.

Another three deaths occurred in the same period during clashes between workers and police, most recently a protester who was shot in the back by a policeman and killed in the northern city of Colon last week.

 

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