Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Workers' Rights in Panama

Listo, our gardener, works Mondays to Wednesdays and I pay him cash every Wednesday. He did not work Monday this week because it was Christmas, but when I paid him today I gave him the normal amount, on the theory that it's a national and religious holiday and I should pay him even if he did not work that day.

He seemed surprised, confused and even slightly alarmed. He said, "But I did not work on Monday. Should I come tomorrow?"

I said, "No, that's ok. It was a holiday."

Listo still seemed puzzled.

I said in bad Spanish, "They do not pay in holidays here?"

I don't know if Listo understood exactly what I was saying, but he nodded his head, smiled wide, and said, "Thank you, sir."

For some reason I felt depressed afterwards. Listo's excessive gratitude at this very small act of kindness (and I did not even think of it as kindness, but simply fairness) says a lot about the desperate conditions of the poor in Panama.

Bill Brunner informed me just last week that I am required to sign up both Rosa and Listo for social security, and to make monthly payments on their behalf. 12% comes out of my pocket, and 7% out of their salaries, or something like that. Neither Rosa or Listo has ever mentioned this, most likely because A, they don't want seven percent taken out of their salaries, and B, they don't want to take any chance of losing their jobs for being pushy.

Furthermore, all employees are entitled to 30 paid holidays every year, and to an end-of-year bonus equal to one months pay. This is called "the thirteenth month."

It so happens that I gave both Rosa and Listo bonuses equal to slightly more than one month's pay, and Rosa's husband went out of his way to thank me. I get the impression no one has ever actually done this for them before. I suspect that for the most part, the Indians and mestizos who live in these mountains have never expected or received their rights.

Some will read this post and think that I am generous, or bragging, or that I am a stupid gringo who is being taken advantage of, or that I am a stupid gringo who is throwing his money away.

No doubt Panama is full of hucksters and con artists. In fact conning is a lifestyle here, and they have a phrase for it: "Juega Vivo" (the game of life?).

But that has never been the biggest problem here. The biggest problem in this entire "New World," from the northern reaches of Canada to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, has been five hundred years of slaughter, slavery and oppression of the native populations (and the Africans) by the Europeans. That's beyond my scope to address, obviously, but don't try to tell me that paying my gardener - who works with his hands in the hot tropical sun - a few dollars to enjoy himself on Christmas day, is naive or wasteful.

I want to be fair, nothing more or less. And that's what is sad and depressing, that I don't think anyone has ever been fair with these Indians who live here in the mountains.

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