Monday 18 March 2024

PRICE OF PROTEST : Panama’s building workers leaders at risk



Panama’s building workers leaders at risk

Spare a minute to add you voice to the growing international movement to defend SUNTRACS, the National Union of the Construction and Similar Industries of Panama, whose leaders are being subjected to persecutory, repressive, and intimidating treatment by Panamanian authorities.

SUNTRACS, along with UNITE, belongs to the BWI (Building and Wood Workers' International), a global union federation of 361 free and democratic unions representing 12 million members across 115 countries.

Along with LabourStart, an online news service maintained globally by volunteers, the BWI has organised an online campaign asking Panamanian authorities to stop persecuting SUNTRACS and respect freedom of association! Unite members are urged to email Panamanian authorities. Messages will be forwarded to SUNTRACS.

The persecution of SUNTRACS leaders relates to their prominent roles in protests that defeated a 40-year mining concession for the transnational company (TNC) First Quantum Minerals – an extractive policy that would have caused grave social and environmental damage. Unionists are improperly being accused of terrorism.

Last year marked the biggest social unrest in Panama since its re-democratisation. Nationwide protests occurred against Law 406, which authorised a 20-year concession to the Canadian company First Quantum Minerals for open-pit copper extraction.

Opposition was based on its environmental impact, including contamination of water, air, and soil and the degradation of a highly biodiverse forest.

The second motivation was people's sovereignty. The contract was highly financially beneficial to the TNC allowing it to dispossess land arbitrarily. Sovereignty is crucial as Panamanians fought throughout the 20th century to rid the country of the United States-controlled Panama Canal Zone.

The general strike and mass protests were organised by environmentalists, indigenous activists, trade unions, churches, and students. Roads and ports were blocked for over a month. Security forces brutally reacted violently.  Hundreds were injured, over 1500 arrested and three unionists murdered.

SUNTRACS helped mobilise the protests, which ended when the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that Law 406 was unconstitutional; moreover, parliament prohibited all mining extraction, even annulling existing contracts

What a victory but the fight must go on. SUNTRACS is now being persecuted as the state-owned Savings Bank has closed SUNTRACS’ bank accounts.

SUNTRACS leaders Saúl Méndez, General Secretary, Jaime Caballero, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, as well as the teacher Diógenes Sánchez and indigenous leaders are being sued by the Public Prosecutor's Office, accused of allegedly committing crimes against freedom and the economic order.

According to Saúl Mendez, “this is a combined economic and political operation between the Panamanian banking system and the government. SUNTRACS is not even allowed to open new accounts in other banks. In the accounts that have been left open, we are not allowed to deposit the union affiliation fees.”

The BWI/LabourStart petition asks Panamanian authorities to unfreeze SUNTRACS' bank accounts and cease union-busting measures.

Further mobilisation?

 “We have been mobilising, distributing leaflets and will be developing actions that will intensify until it culminates in a strike, if this problem is not resolved”, said Mr. Mendez. “I want to thank the international trade union movement, especially UNITE comrades in the UK, for their solidarity with SUNTRACS. ”

You can sign the petition at:-


This is a slightly longer piece than appeared in Unite building Worker for Spring 2024

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