Balboa port strike into its seventh day

The walkout begins on the afternoon of July 18. Union’s video from its Twitter account.

Port strike may become a sign of the times

by Eric Jackson

It’s far from the ordinary strike manifesto by a union that has an expired contract. Generally those are about pay, benefits and working conditions. Except for a demand about fixing up a rest area, there is none of that in SITRAVAAP’s July 17 missive. It’s about union recognition.

Last year Panama Ports, a subsidiary of the world’s largest seaports company, Hong Kong based CK Hutchison Holdings, tried to fire four employees at the Port of Balboa for labor activism, unilaterally raise the pay of a few employees, lower that of most others at the port and create its own bargaining partner. But Panama has a Labor Code that came into force when General Omar Torrijos ran Panama and moreover is a signatory to international labor rights treaties. What the company was trying to do flew in the face of that. The union went to court and appeared to have won an order that the company had to negotiate. Then the company filed a motion for a clarification, and the case has now been stalled in the Supreme Court for many months.

The company says it can’t negotiate while the matter is before the court, so after months of petitions and demonstrations, the union walked off of the job on July 18. The police moved in with a riot squad, allegedly to prevent vandalism or that sort of militant picketing that would keep non-striking employees from going to work. But most of the port workers have walked out, the company just can’t hire skilled crane workers off of the street and port activity has stalled. Some of the ships are taking their containers to ports in Colombia and putting them on trucks or railroad cars to get where they need to go.

The usual business groups are getting indignant about many millions of dollars of lost income for Panama. However,  most Panamanians don’t see any piece of that action and moreover, a bunch of legislators of President Cortizo’s Democratic Revolutionary Party say that they support the strikers. So will this PRD government be labor-friendly like the dictatorship of party founder Omar Torrijos, or will it be violently anti-labor like the 2004-2009 administration of the strongman’s son, former president Martín Torrijos?

The ports of Cristobal and Balboa were privatized under another PRD administration, the 1994-1999 shift of Ernesto Pérez Balladares. Hutchison put a lot of money into rebuilding those facilities and got special tax breaks. Other state concessionaires later demanded and for the most part got parity, which means that the government receives little from not only these two ports, but as a consequence also from other companies operating on state property or extracting state-owned mineral resources. The Cortizo administration has indicated that it will “review” both the ports concession and that of the copper mine in Donoso.

Look at the strike as a test case, both for the new administration and for Chinese investors, of what Panamanian labor policies will be like over these next few years.


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