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Public school teachers march to protest the Torrijos dialogue methods. Photo by Eric Jackson

Little dialogue in the Seguro Social revision process

by Eric Jackson

On paper --- and in Panama's daily newspapers --- it appears to be going so very smoothly. Representatives of various social sectors are going point by point through the 180 sections of the controversial Law 17, which made drastic changes in the nation's social security system and provoked a month of strikes and rioting. But even though President Torrijos was obliged to back down, suspend the law for 90 days  and create a dialogue process, there seems to be little real dialogue and the main issues of the retirement age, the number of months that one must pay into the system to qualify for retirement and the diversion of a half-billion from the retirement fund to private financial institutions have not been addressed and the process itself is strongly questioned.

The process started out with the Torrijos administration holding more than 60 percent of the votes around the dialogue table --- the government, the Social Security Fund (CSS) management and the government-aligned retiree group each control 20 percent of the vote, and among the labor delegation the CONATO labor federation is also aligned with the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). But that hasn't been enough. By a series of maneuvers the government has replaced the head of AMOACSS, the Seguro Social doctors' and dentists' union and representative of FEDAP, the Panamanian Association of Professional Associations, with Torrijos loyalists. There is a PRD move to take control of the teachers' organization as well.

Meanwhile the mainstream media, all of which are dominated by people with an economic stake in the diversion of part of the retirement fund to financial institutions in which they own a stake, are waging a tenacious propaganda campaign to denounce the FRENADESSO strike front's objection to the dialogue methodology --- without, however, actually covering what those objections are.

The Torrijos administration's tactics have been working, if one is to judge from his rise in the opinion polls from 21 percent public approval to some 38 percent since the strike ended in late June. Thus, on the weekend of July 23-24 FRENADESSO resumed its street postering campaign, and on July 28 they staged a small protest march to the Presidencia to object to the dialogue methodology. The mainstream media, as had been expected, portrayed the small number of protesters as a sign that opposition to Law 17 has collapsed. But the labor militants didn't withdraw from the talks, and the dialogue sessions are now taking place six days a week, with the aim being a set of revisions to be completed before the next legislative session begins on September 1.

But the fact that they are still at the table doesn't mean that the labor militants like what's going on there.

Former CSS director Juan Jované, one of the FRENADESSO leaders, said that the problem is that, just as in the process leading to the passage of Law 17, the people at the dialogue are being asked to make economic decisions without the necessary pertinent information. He noted that in the United States the social security system makes projections that go forward 50 years, based on history that goes back 80 years. But CSS director René Luciani has gone uncontested on RPC-TV to denounce FRENADESSO for demanding information that goes back to the 1970s.

The SUNTRACS construction workers' union leader Genaro López backs Jované's contention with an example that goes to the heart of the membership's concerns: "There is no documentation to back Law 17. There is no information about the average working life of people in the various labor sectors." Notoriously, construction work is hard on bodies, not only because it's dangerous but because heavy lifting over many years wears out a body's joints. But the changes in the retirement age and the number of years of contributions to the CSS would set affect SUNTRACS members regardless of what experience would say about how many years of construction work a body can ordinarily take.

From the FRENADESSO side, the allegations are that Law 17 is a response to international lenders' demands, which are coupled with the threat that financing won't be available for any canal expansion project. From the government's side, Law 17 is the necessary bitter medicine to keep the CSS from falling into bankruptcy, which would cause a chain reaction of national calamities. But the argument is being conducted without any of the supporting data on the table.

It appears to be a matter of pride for Martín Torrijos not to be beaten by the likes of Genaro  López and Juan Jované, and from a certain perspective the president has the upper hand. But the 67 percent increase in the months of contributions to the CSS in order to qualify for a pension, much more than the three-year increase in the retirement age, will in effect deprive a large part of the Panamanian working class of any possibility to retire. The burden would be especially heavy on those who work in industries where the norm is a series of short-lasting jobs like construction, and for those who used to have special retirement systems that were abolished during the Pérez Balladares administration (nurses and teachers, to name the most numerous) and found themselves in the Seguro Social system in mid-career. Other economic factors like increased increased employer contributions, and the requirement that self-employed persons who will never qualify for a pension must pay into the system. A dialogue that comes up with only minor changes to these central issues would surely destroy cut into public support for Torrijos, regardless of the way that the mainstream media spin it.

It would seem, then, that the president would have to back down on some of the economic aspects of Law 17. And maybe he might, alleging all the while that FRENADESSO et al were mere obstructions, while more reasonable participants in the dialogue were able to win some gains for Panamanian working people. Then it will remain to be seen whether labor federations like CONATO, which were marginalized by the militant unions that joined FRENADESSO, will be rewarded for backing the government with a new lease on life.



Also in this section:
The rougher side of Bocas real estate
CSS "dialogue" under total Torrijos control
Latin Americans win banana arbitration with Europeans
Tax law review

Colombian oil maneuvers lead to US racketeering suit
Business & Economy Briefs

 

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