PANAMA CITY – The construction of a third set of locks for the Panama Canal has been stalled due to a strike involving close to 700 workers, who are demanding better working conditions and pay increases.
Meanwhile, negotiations have begun between representatives of the striking workers and the consortium handling the project, Grupo Unidos por el Canal.
The strike comes just six days after Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Manuel Chaves officially inaugurated the canal-expansion project.
“We have communication with the people. (The work’s been shut down) and the strike is continuing,” the secretary-general of the Suntracs construction union, Genaro Lopez, told Efe Tuesday, adding that 700 workers are taking part in the job action.
The protest began on Saturday and has gradually received the backing of more workers involved in building the third set of locks, a project being carried out by the GUPC consortium, which is led by Spain’s Sacyr Vallehermoso and includes Italy’s Impregilo, Belgium’s Jan De Nul Group and Panama’s Constructora Urbana.
Representatives of GUPC, which was awarded the $3.1 billion third-set-of-locks project, sat down Tuesday with union representatives in a bid to resolve the dispute.
The workers are demanding a salary hike, a solution to the lack of transportation for workers and more sanitary working conditions, among other improvements.
“It’s a negotiating table to discuss 13 points, 12 of them involving violations of the collective-bargaining agreement and the labor law,” Lopez said, adding that the work stoppage will continue while the negotiations are taking place.
The consortium has agreed to “comply with a countless number of points, but there is still the issue of salary, payments to people on strike and (guarantees of) non-reprisals against workers,” he added.
The GUPC did not issue a comment on Tuesday, after issuing a press release Monday night saying only that it “will take appropriate legal action to ensure normal operations of this great project.”
The 300 workers involved in the Atlantic construction work and the close to 400 working on the Pacific side earn between $2.90 and $3.37 an hour, depending on skill level and job classification.
Suntracs “is interested in reaching an agreement to resolve this problem, but everything depends on the response from the consortium,” Lopez said.
The strike already resulted in a clash Monday between Suntracs members who support the strikers and the police. Some 30 unionists who are not involved in construction work in Colon, north of the Panamanian capital, were arrested.
Separately, an Indonesian man fell from a dredge and died Tuesday while performing expansion work unrelated to the third set of locks.
The victim worked for Jan de Nul in a dredging project at the Atlantic entrance to the canal, a project separate from the work that firm is carrying out as a member of the GUPC consortium.
The goal of the canal expansion plan, which encompasses several projects and is estimated t
o cost a total of $5.25 billion, is to double the waterway’s annual capacity from 300 million tons to 600 million tons.
The canal, designed in 1904 for ships with a 267-meter (875-foot) length and 28-meter (92-foot) beam, is too small to handle the “post-Panamax” ships that are three times as big, making it necessary for some time to expand by building the new set of locks. EFE