This week marks the third anniversary of shocking acts of police violence against striking banana workers in the Caribbean coastal province of Bocas del Toro in Panama.
On July 2nd 2010, over four thousand workers belonging to the Union of Banana Industry Workers (SITRAIBANA) in Changuinola voted to strike over the company's decision to stop deducting union fees at source. Anger had been building amongst workers after the introduction of controversial new legislation. The new laws were packaged together in “Law 30” which undermined fundamental rights such as the right to strike and freedom of association. Law 30 also penalised workers who took their protests to the streets, an offence which could result in up to two years in prison.
Under the new laws, the permanent replacement of striking workers was permitted and was being actively sought by President Martinelli. He was reported to have negotiated with Honduran President Lobo to fly in 5000 workers to break the strike. The strong anti-labour and anti-union provisions were enforced by immunity for police who used lethal firepower against protestors, acting effectively as a "right to kill" for the police.
As understanding of what these new laws meant for Panamanian workers spread throughout the country, anger mounted and the situation worsened. On 8th July the growing tensions culminated in several acts of brutal repression against the striking banana and construction workers that resulted in 6 deaths, over one hundred being injured and over 300 arrests. Leaders of the SUNTRACS and CONATO trade unions were also rounded up and arrested. These acts were met with widespread international condemnation from trade unions and human rights organisations.
Three years on, the anniversary of these terrible events is remembered and serves as a strong reminder of the dangers facing banana workers in developing countries and the struggles that these workers face in joining trade unions. As yet, the government has not fulfilled the promises made of compensation for the injured or killed and assistance for the disabled workers and others affected, nor has there been any serious and independent investigation into what happened that day.
Find out more:
Read the interview with Sitraibana leader Genaro Bennett about the events of three years ago in Panama here (in Spanish).
View the photo presentation prepared by Rel-UITA to commemorate the 8th of July 2012 here.
Sources: Human Rights Everywhere, SITRAIBANA, COHA , REL-UITA and Banana Link.
Photo: 2013 Rel-UITA