Clashes between police and workers' groups in Panama have been suppressed with tear gas, leaving at least two workers dead.
Protest against the policies of rightwing President Ricardo Martinelli have been building since the end of June, when Martinelli's legislative allies rammed through new legislation that sharply restricts labor rights in this geopolitically key Central American country.
"Ley 30" establishes that companies can fire striking workers and bring in replacements (scabs), and they do not have to deduct union dues, under the law called "optional" from wages and deliver them to union treasuries.
Another piece of legislation passed at the same time eliminates the need for environmental impact studies for many development projects.
Objections against the new labor law, seen as intended to destroy Panamanian unions completely, have been raised by the National Front for the Defense of Economic and Social Rights (Frenadeso), and by the Banana Industry Workers' Union. The latter organization began a strike and protests against the law and the Bocas Fruit Company in Bocas del Toro, in Western Panama.
On Thursday, July 8, the banana workers clashed with police in the town of Changuinola in Bocas del Toro. According to reports in the Venezuelan based news agency Telesur, at least two workers have been killed and dozens wounded, some seriously.
At the same time, construction workers employed in expanding the Panama Canal have been fired for going on strike, and six of the workers have been arrested for not showing up for work. Other demonstrations are going on in Panama City and other places.
President Martinelli, of the right-wing Democratic Change Party, has been in power since 2009, having won that year's election on a program stressing fighting crime. He is currently angling to get a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Changes in labor and environmental laws appear to be aimed at attracting more foreign investment. But today's events may arouse opposition from U.S. organized labor, which has been opposing a similar treaty with Colombia out of concern for that country's horrible record on workers' rights.
Photo: A demonstrator holds a sign that reads in Spanish "Politicians" during a June 29 demonstration in Panama City with heavily armed police in background. (Tito Herrera/AP)