Work­ers in­vade Panama

For­eign­ers skilled in cer­tain fields get jobs, leav­ing less-qual­i­fied lo­cals be­hind.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Tracy Wilkin­son wilkin­son@latimes.com

PANAMA CITY — The house­maids are from Nicaragua. Many ho­tel em­ploy­ees hail from Colom­bia, while Filipinos work the cop­per and gold mines.

An en­tire neigh­bor­hood is called Lit­tle Cara­cas, be­cause of the num­ber of Venezue­lans.

As a cross­roads link­ing two con­ti­nents, Panama has long been a home, or at least a stopover, for le­gions of for­eign­ers. In the last decade, how­ever, record-shat­ter­ing eco­nomic growth has in­creased de­mand for skilled work­ers, invit­ing an in­va­sion of for­eign ap­pli­cants while leav­ing less-qual­i­fied Pana­ma­ni­ans be­hind. In ad­di­tion, lax bank­ing laws have made Panama a con­ve­nient haven for the rich flee­ing so­cial­ist gov­ern­ments.

“You can earn a lot more here be­cause they pay in dol­lars,” the de facto cur­rency of Panama, said Yulissa Mone­gro, a man­i­curist who came from the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic. “I re­ally miss my son back home, but the money I make here is [more than] I could make any­where else.”

Af­ter the de­ci­sion was made in 2006 to em­bark on a $5.2-bil­lion ex­pan­sion of the Panama Canal, due to be fin­ished next year, the coun­try re­al­ized that it would need to up its game in job train­ing.

Cov­er­ing what they call the deficit in Pana­ma­nian work­ers, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials said the prob­lem had be­come ur­gent.

“There is a grow­ing gap be­tween the large num­ber of com­pa­nies look­ing for work­ers and not find­ing them, and the large num­ber of work­ers who can’t find jobs in an eco­nomic sys­tem that is in­creas­ingly de­mand­ing,” Ri­cardo Sotelo, pres­i­dent of the Panama In­dus­tri­al­ists Union, said in an in­ter­view. “We need about five years to ob­tain the ed­u­ca­tional re­sults that will fill out the Pana­ma­nian work­force.”

The gov­ern­ment has launched nu­mer­ous re­train­ing pro­grams, and pri­vate com­pa­nies also do some train­ing. One su­per­mar­ket chain has class­rooms to pre­pare check­out clerks, bag­gers and stock­room em­ploy­ees. But the pro­grams still fall short, an­a­lysts say, be­cause there are too few to meet the de­mand.

Sotelo said that for many Pana­ma­ni­ans, a cer­tain stigma is at­tached to at­tend­ing tech­ni­cal school and the con­se­quence has been a short­age of work­ers such as elec­tri­cians, plum­bers and hy­draulic engi­neers. His or­ga­ni­za­tion is ad­vo­cat­ing a form of “dual ed­u­ca­tion” that will al­low a stu­dent to re­ceive tech­ni­cal train­ing but also at­tend univer­sity classes.

“We want some­one who doesn’t just know how to use a screw­driver,” he said.

The ser­vice in­dus­try, which in­cludes canal-re­lated jobs that serve the multi­bil­lion-dol­lar global mar­itime trans­port in­dus­try, ac­counts for 90% of Panama’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct. For the first time in five years, the un­em­ploy­ment rate has be­gun to rise slightly, to 4.8%.

Train­ing for jobs in tourism, res­tau­rant ser­vice and sim­i­lar tasks has lagged be­hind that of sev­eral nearby coun­tries, said Adolfo Quin­tero, an of­fi­cial with the Pana­ma­nian Assn. of Busi­ness Ex­ec­u­tives. That opens the job mar­ket to im­ported la­bor­ers, who in some cases ac­cept lower wages.

Many Cen­tral and South Amer­i­cans come to Panama to work be­cause the money is good and it’s eas­ier than try­ing to reach and il­le­gally en­ter the United States. The lan­guage is the same and many na­tion­al­i­ties, like Colom­bians and Costa Ri­cans, don’t even need a visa, while oth­ers, like Nicaraguans, can ob­tain a visa re­new­able ev­ery three months.

“Panama is fer­tile field for for­eign­ers,” Sotelo said.

In restau­rants, ho­tels and shops, for­eign em­ploy­ees can be seen in large num­bers.

“They say Pana­ma­ni­ans are lazy. So the Colom­bians can come and get work easily and quickly,” said Jose, a Pana­ma­nian bar­tender at a sky­scraper ho­tel in down­town Panama City. “But there is no re­sent­ment.”

Gual­berto, 47, a Colom­bian, con­curred to a point. “It has not been easy,” he said; he had to prove him­self at first.

Hav­ing taken night classes in elec­tric­ity and plumb­ing, Gual­berto now heads the main­te­nance depart­ment at another ho­tel. He says many Pana­ma­ni­ans are less will­ing to work long hours and week­ends. (Peo­ple in­ter­viewed at the fancier ho­tels did not want their last names used nor their work­place iden­ti­fied.)

Un­der na­tional law, 90% to 95% of canal ex­pan­sion work­ers must be Pana­ma­nian, of­fi­cials said, a marked con­trast to the malaria-rid­den con­struc­tion pro­ject a cen­tury ago in which West In­di­ans, Amer­i­cans, French, Chi­nese and oth­ers built the wa­ter­way that bi­sects Panama and links the Pa­cific and At­lantic oceans.

Of­fi­cially, for­eign­ers may be em­ployed only in about 20 pro­fes­sions; among those la­beled “for Pana­ma­ni­ans only” are fields such as chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing that aren’t taught in Pana­ma­nian schools.

Many com­pa­nies ex­ceed their quo­tas on for­eign em­ploy­ees, said Nelva Reyes, a school­teacher and teach­ers union leader.

De­spite ef­forts at train­ing, she said, thou­sands of Pana­ma­nian youths drop out of school ev­ery year and can­not find work.

“For the last five years we’ve been de­mand­ing pro­grams from the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion that of­fer al­ter­na­tives so that [dropouts] don’t turn to crime and gangs,” but the pleas have been ig­nored, Reyes said.

“It leaves us short-handed in terms of the work­force but also in dan­ger of more vi­o­lence.”

Ro­drigo Aran­gua AFP/Getty Im­ages

PANAMA CITY, where Nicaraguans, Colom­bians, Filipinos, Venezue­lans and oth­ers have come for jobs. “Panama is fer­tile field for for­eign­ers,” says Ri­cardo Sotelo, pres­i­dent of the Panama In­dus­tri­al­ists Union.

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