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Volume 14, Number 2
Jan. 20 - Feb. 2, 2008


business & economy

Also in this section:
Torrijos withholds contractual pay raises
Meat on a stick vendors banished
Bocas dam resistors aren't giving up
Looking back at 2007's main economic stories
PIMPSA Rodman cement plant appears back on track
Business & Economy Briefs

 

 Government isn't paying contracted raises to public employees

by Eric Jackson

Apparently in an attempt to provoke labor strife from which he figures that he may gain political advantage, President Torrijos is withholding pay raises that the government contracted to pay to some of its most critical public employee union members.

The Social Security Fund (CSS) unions and most organized teachers opposed the president's 2005 Seguro Social changes, which included the privatization of the public pension fund's management and canceled the possibility of retirement pensions for tens of thousands of Panamanian workers. Then in 2006, at a point when the canal expansion referendum was doing badly in the polls, Torrijos played the anti-labor card both by provoking a teachers' strike and announcing that there would be no pay raises for Seguro Social workers.

In both instances, Torrijos moved to divide public employees.

For the teachers he created a PRD educators' front group called the Teachers Unity Council (CUM), with which he "negotiated" a contract in lieu of talking to the educators' unions, which were joined together in the Teachers Action Front (FAM). The latter went on strike. That strike was defeated and FAM unions had to accept the pay package that it had offered CUM, which called for pay raises over the life of the arrangement, including one to begin this past January 1.

In Seguro Social a faction of PRD supporters made a noisy show of blocking the Transistmica with burning tires, whereupon the President blamed the unions that were actually negotiating for a pay raise without blocking the street. Torrijos supporters also roughed up one of the CSS unions' leaders, Priscila Vásquez, as she went to talk with government representatives.

In the end a 2006 Seguro Social strike was averted by an agreement on a contract that granted small raises, one of which was to take effect this past January 1.

On payday, both the Seguro Social workers and the teachers found that the pay raises were not included in their paychecks. There have ensued a number of small protests actions, including several traffic blockages around the country. The Seguro Social unions are waiting until after Carnival to decide if they will go on strike, while any teachers' strike would have to wait for the beginning of the school year in March.

CSS director René Luciani, who signed the pay raise agreement with the unions in his bailiwick, flat-out refuses to abide by the contract. "We just gave the doctors a raise and the institution can't afford more," he told El Panama America.

The Ministry of Education at first told the teachers that since the National Assembly had not put the raises that had been scheduled for more than a year and one-half in the national budget (which was sent to the legislature by the president), there would be no pay raises until at least March, when the legislature goes back into session.

There is already a major confrontation with the nation's 35,000 public school teachers brewing over the Torrijos administration's unilateral plans to slash the teaching of the arts, physical education and history. (That curriculum change is in line with the recommendations of international lenders and a regional education "reform" program they finance and is thus a particular target of nationalistic and leftist agitation.) The cutbacks will be part of an unusually large reassignment of teachers to different schools, a process that tends to prompt charges of political favoritism. (However, during the Torrijos administration corruption and favoritism in teaching assignments have been nowhere nearly as flagrant as in Mireya Moscoso's administration.) The one thing that hadn't been on the table between the government and the public school teachers for this year was the paycheck issue. 

So might the teachers be moved to strike? They did lose their last one. School is out and the FAM unions have not taken to the streets, but they have issued protests and warnings.

Meanwhile the Torrijos administration --- having just lost a bitter 39-day strike to the public sector doctors' unions --- is taking a much more flexible line about the teachers' pay raises than it is with the CSS workers.

The latest promise from the Ministry of Education is that the teachers will start getting their raises in the next payday's checks and that those will include part payment for the raises withheld in January's first payday.

The issues are being closely followed by the private sector as well. Panama has what for us is high inflation lately and the big question is whether the doctors' strike was the beginning of labor strife throughout the economy in which workers try to force a rise in pay scales to make up for what they have lost to inflation.


 

Also in this section:
Torrijos withholds contractual pay raises
Meat on a stick vendors banished
Bocas dam resistors aren't giving up
Looking back at 2007's main economic stories
PIMPSA Rodman cement plant appears back on track
Business & Economy Briefs


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© 2008 by Eric Jackson
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