Taking an old dispute to the streets

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Blocking Via España, much to the consternation of morning drivers.

The Panamanian way of arguing with the government

photos by Kermit Nourse

February 15 was a payday, with added numbers of people driving downtown to do banking or shopping. It was also the 25th anniversary of a dispute that began shortly before the 1989 US invasion. Workers for the old state-owned IRHE electric company and INTEL phone company were not paid their 13th month salaries back then — the Panamanian wage system gives workers an extra month’s pay per year, in two semi-annual installments — and after the invesion many were fired and others told that they would be eventually paid. They never were and in the late 1990s the utilities were privatized, leading to more job losses. The privatization laws had it that the new buyers would assume the obligations of the old government companies but by and large they never did. They didn’t pay the 13th month arrears, and sent both current but mostly former workers to the government to collect — which sent them to the companies to collect. Now it’s a quarter century after the last IRHE and INTEL arrears were accrued and the former employees want their money. Everyone points in a different direction or tells them to just accept their loss, but in the Panamanian political culture that’s an invitation to block the street unless and until some solution, or promise of a solution, is forthcoming.

As you may see, the inconvenienced drivers were not amused.


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