Petition: Protect freedom of association in Panama!

The Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) and LabourStart urgently call on you to join us in demanding that the Panamanian government respect the freedom of association and stop persecuting trade unions.

SUNTRACS, the Single National Union of the Construction and Similar Industries of Panama, and its leaders, are being subjected to persecutory, repressive, and intimidating treatment by Panamanian authorities for their prominent role in the protests that defeated a 40-year mining concession for the transnational company First Quantum Minerals – an extractive policy that would have caused grave social and environmental damage. Due to their role in the protests, the unionists are improperly being accused of terrorism.

2023 has been marked by the biggest social unrest in Panama since its re-democratisation. Nationwide protests occurred from 20 October until 27 November against the approval of Law 406, which authorised a 20-year concession (extendable for an extra 20 years) to the transnational Canadian company First Quantum Minerals for open-pit copper extraction, the largest mining project in Central America.

The opposition to the law was based on its environmental impact, including the contamination of water reserves, air, and soil, as well as the deforestation of a thirty-two-thousand-acre area of the Mesoamerican Corridor – leading to the degradation of a highly biodiverse forest that connects South and Central America.

The second motivation was the defence of people's sovereignty. The contract was highly beneficial to the transnational company in financial terms and allowed the TNC to dispossess land arbitrarily. The Panamanian population was excluded from decisions concerning their country’s extractive industry. The question of sovereignty is particularly important for Panamanians, who fought throughout the 20th century to rid the country of the United States-controlled Panama Canal Zone.

The general strike and wave of mass protests were organised by environmentalists, indigenous activists, trade unions, churches, and students. Protesters blocked roads and ports for over a month. The security forces brutally repressed the massive demonstrations, leaving hundreds injured and over 1500 arrested. Three unionists were murdered during the protests.

The BWI affiliate, SUNTRACS, the Single National Union of the Construction and Similar Industries of Panama, was one of the protagonists of the protests. This prominent role increased their visibility in the media and their relevance in national politics. The protests came to an end when the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that Law 406 was unconstitutional; moreover, the parliament prohibited all mining extraction in Panamanian territory, annulling existing contracts and prohibiting the signing of new ones.

However, the freedom of association and the integrity of trade union leaders are seriously threatened in Panama. SUNTRACS leaders Saúl Méndez, General Secretary, Jaime Caballero, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, as well as the leader of the comarca Toribio García and the teacher Diógenes Sánchez are being sued by the Public Prosecutor's Office, accused of allegedly committing crimes against freedom and the economic order to the detriment of Panamanian society.

Furthermore, on 13 November, the state-owned Savings Bank closed SUNTRACS' bank accounts, in a deliberate action to obstruct the right to protest and the exercise of freedom of association, resulting in illegal state interference in trade union life based on false accusations of terrorism.

Unionism is not a crime! Trade unions should not be penalised for their mobilisation in defence of social and environmental rights!

We request the immediate unfreezing of SUNTRACS' bank accounts and the cessation of union-busting measures, which constitute open violations of ILO Conventions 87 and 98, to which Panama is a signatory.

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