Date: Wed, 8 Sep 1999 13:22:48 -0500 (CDT)
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Canal Workers Demand Severance Pay from US
By Silvio Hernández, IPS, 7 September 1999
PANAMA CITY, Sep 7 (IPS) - Workers in the Panama canal zone are demanding 80 million dollars in severance pay from the United States, as well as permanent contracts for 2,000 "temporary" workers by Dec 31, when Washington hands the canal over to this Central American country.
The roughly 8,000 canal employees will automatically be re- hired by the canal commission after the hand-over. The workers want the 2,000 hired on renewable contracts to be put on the payroll in the same conditions as the 6,000 "permanent" employees.
But others who worked or still work for U.S. military bases that have already closed down or will do so by Dec 31 are demanding severance pay.
The United States refuses to respect the severance pay scale provided for by the Panamanian labour code, as it must do according to the canal treaties signed by the two countries in 1977, said the president of the Association of Canal Employees, Ray Bishop.
The treaties stipulate that workers dismissed by Washington are to receive severance pay before the Dec 31 deadline, he explained.
Bishop announced his plans to visit Washington in November to denounce, before the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Congress, "violations of labour-related aspects of the canal treaties" committed by the government of Bill Clinton.
Unlike the "lack of support" received from the government of Ernesto Pérez Balladares, President Mireya Moscoso, who took office Sep 1, "has committed herself to pressing the United States" to recognise the dismissed workers' right to severance pay, said Bishop.
An estimated 35,000 workers are entitled to a total of around 80 million dollars in severance pay, said the trade unionist, who added that the Association of Canal Employees was carrying out a study to determine the precise numbers involved.
A former Panamanian negotiator of the canal treaties, Oyden Ortega, pointed out that article 13 of the 1977 treaties states that the United States is to hand over the canal Dec 31 "without any kind of outstanding debt."
Ortega, who headed the ministries of Labour and Foreign Relations in the 1980s, said the United States "is proposing compensation" for dismissed workers that is "much lower" than what the employees are entitled to in accordance with Panamanian labour legislation.
Panama's labour code calculates severance pay, on average, as three weeks of wages for each year worked.
Bishop pointed out that some of the workers had been employed for up to 25 years.
said that since no statute of limitations applied to severance pay, the Panamanian state would have to pick up the bill if the United States failed to comply with the treaties - and that in itself would be a violation of the treaties.
The Coalition of Unions of Canal Workers, meanwhile, is demanding that some 2,000 workers employed on the basis of temporary, renewable contracts, but who have worked for 10 to 15 years, be made "permanent" workers by the Canal Administration Commission prior to the hand-over.
The Canal Administration Commission is comprised of five representatives of the U.S. government and four Panamanians.
For his part, canal administrator Alberto Alemán said the fact that the 2,000 workers were hired on a contract basis did not mean they were temporary, but that unlike those hired prior to 1980, they had been employed in the context of "a new concept of labour mobility."
But Coalition spokeswoman Felicia Ng argued that the contract system under which workers have been hired by the binational commission that has been administering the canal since the early 1980s "has given rise to a situation of labour discrimination" in the canal zone.
She said that under the "discriminatory" system applied by the Administration Commission, there is "a group of permanent employees whose future is ensured, and another group of 'temporary' employees who have worked for 10 or 15 years" without being put on the payroll.
She argued that despite the existence of job openings for permanent workers, the Administration Commission regularly rotates workers, turning them into "kind of temporary tokens that it moves whenever it pleases.
"These workers suffer double discrimination, because on one hand they are submitted to labour instability, and on the other thay have to perform jobs that are not in line with the wage level at which they were hired," said Ng. (END/IPS/tra-so/sh/mj/sw/99)
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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