Headlines - Panama Guide - Truth, Spin, and the "Non-Event"

Truth, Spin, and the "Non-Event"

Friday, September 01 2006 @ 09:59 AM EDT
Contributed by: Don Winner

There's an element I frequently encounter in my personal and business travels around Panama. If you know me personally then you know that I'll never be mistaken for a local. As a matter of fact my personal appearance is of the "classic gringo" in Panama. I sometimes take advantage of this disguise to pass myself off as a newbie, fresh off the Continental Tocumen-Newark shuttle, in order to hear the real pitch that people are getting from the sales staffs of all the people who are trying to position themselves to cater to this growing market. And in my case, it's easy to play dumb (funny, it almost seems natural sometimes... hmmm.) So I frequently embark on a journey to find the "truth" about something and I'm almost always surprised along the way. My preconceived notions are usually wrong and there are several consistent facts that continually crop up on these excursions. That truth is in the eye of the beholder, that people have a tendency to ignore the most important things because its not what they expected to hear, and that the only constant is change. (more...)


Red Frog Beach Club and SUNTRACS: This whole article sprang from my desire to find out the truth about the 500 striking construction workers who are building the Red Frog Beach Club (RFBC) in Bocas del Toro. Spin, hype, and mudslinging is usually easy to spot but getting to the truth and the roots of the matter is always much more difficult and time consuming. To investigate this issue I spoke with union leaders, people representing the Red Frog Beach Club development, and representatives from the Ministry of Labor and Development (MITRADEL). In addition I spoke to run-of-the-mill construction workers who are a whole different breed of animal compared to the union leaders. In all of these conversations it became apparent that everyone had a point of view and a way of looking at things. And, they all think they are right and know "the truth."

Truth is In The Eye of the Beholder: In a search for truth one should start by knowing what the truth is when you see it, right? I mean, you have to start somewhere. So what's the confusion? If everything was cut and dried then there would be no need for judges, referees, arbitrators, mediators, tie-breakers, or instant replay. In every dispute there are two sides to the story and both sides consider themselves to be absolutely right. They plead their case to an impartial third party who decides who's right or wrong. One person walks away triumphant and the other thinks the judge is smoking dope. Most lawsuits don't end with an eruption of truth but rather a simple decision made by a person empowered to break a tie and settle an argument. But what happens when the decision of the umpire is overcome by force because one side has the power and leverage to change the rules?

Common Sense, and "That Ain't Right" If our parents did a good job then we are all empowered with that little voice in the back of our head that helps us to identify truth and fact. The problem arises when competing interests cause internal ethical and moral conflicts. Remember that Jim Carrey movie "Liar, Liar"? Carrey played the part of Reede, a lawyer that had disappointed his son, who then made a wish forcing his father to say the absolute truth in all situations for one day. Under the effects of the wish, Reede finds himself going around the room in a meeting of the law partners at the firm telling them what he really (truthfully) thinks of them:
  • "... You have bad breath caused by gingivitis. You couldn't get a porn star off. Your hair piece looks like something that was killed. l don't know whether to comb it or scrape it off and bury it in lime! Loser! ldiot! Wimp! Degenerate! Slut!
What Makes it Funny: Obviously, there are all kinds of social and business reasons why you can't walk around all day telling people what's really on your mind. In the above scene, the next line is from the boss, who says "l like your style, Reede! That's what this stuffy company needs! - A little irreverence!." The reply - "Good! I'll see you later, dick-head!" Ask yourself, what would it be worth to be able to say what's on your mind without any restrictions, social or otherwise. The truth is out there but sometimes it's hard to either find, hear, or see because of the smoke screens that people either want to or have to put in front of them.

What Does This Have To Do With Panama? Panama is an imperfect place. Every option for real estate, services, or consumer goods has both good points and bad points. There are two sides to every story and it's up to the individual to see both sides, weigh the various factors and elements, and then make a decision based on the available information. In the end life comes down to a never-ending chain of personal choices and we all got exactly where we are because of the decisions we have made in life. Most of what gets talked about with regards to English speaking expatriates moving to Panama boils down to individual choices that the new arrivals are faced with, and they are confronted with conflicting and competing information from lots of different sources. They are tasked to pick out the "truth" from all of the mixed signals. It can be confusing.

It's A Very Competitive Environment: People who are either visiting Panama as a tourist or moving here as a full time or part time resident are going to follow a path of spending, from the time they get off the plane and until they either leave or are buried here. Everyone in this country is trying to position themselves to be the one who will sell them real estate, provide services, or sell goods. Competition is good, natural, and healthy for any marketplace, and usually results in improved services and prices for consumers. Try this - go to Google and search on "Panama." You will receive 174 million returns. Start reading. (By the way, that means that Panama Guide is in the top 0.000000413% of all Panama-related Internet sites...)

Space in the Cage: This marketplace is in a state of constant flux and change for several reasons. First of all the service providers are working hard to adapt and change to be better prepared to service your needs and to meet your expectations. Secondly there are new companies and individuals coming into this marketplace every day creating both new competition on one side and a greater variety of goods and choices on the other. In some cases the "new guys" are giving those who have been here for awhile fits because they are able to offer better service at a lower price. Another variable is that there are more and more people becoming interested in Panama - more than ever. How many people will eventually move here from other countries? No one knows. Finally, the Panamanian government is working hard to keep all of the balls in the air, to plan for the future, and clean up the mistakes of the past, and to not kill the goose laying the golden eggs. There are so many variables that no one can predict the future with exacting accuracy, and the best anyone can hope for is to spot trends as far on the horizon as possible.

Information and Spin: With all of that having been said as preamble to define the premise it becomes obvious that the key ingredient is access to accurate information. The problem is that almost everyone out there providing information has an agenda, a plan, a sales pitch, or a reason for trying to get you to think one way or the other. The ability to identify the spin, the hidden agenda, the sales pitch, or the potential for back-stabbing and smear. In order to be fully able to understand this little SUNTRACS - RFBC strike drama, you have to be able to read the program:

  • The SUNTRACS Labor Union El Sindicato Unico Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria de la Construcción y Similares (National Union of Workers of Construction and Similar Industries) or SUNTRACS is far and away one of the largest and most powerful labor organizations in the Republic of Panama. The organization has existed since the 1960's and they have seen their star rise and fall several times over the years. It seems like common sense, but basically construction unions get more powerful when there's a lot of construction going on because they have greater leverage and more members. SUNTRACS loses power in times of economic slowdowns and recessions when there is less construction activity and investment for the obvious reasons - less job sites they can influence and fewer members on the job. Union leaders are a fun crowd of guys to talk to. When you get them in a public place they speak loudly and with purpose. Get them in private and away from a gathering of construction workers and they change into a completely different animal. Union leaders are politicians, pure and simple, and while their public rhetoric is carefully crafted to appeal to tough construction workers, their political maneuverings and strategy are designed to increase their power base, income, and influence. Want to know the funny part? The Red Frog Beach Club is not a SUNTRACS job site.

  • The Management of the Red Frog Beach Club: It's more expensive to build in Bocas del Toro than in Panama City. All of the materials and fuel, every nail and bag of cement, has to be transported to the job site. Red Frog is providing jobs to more than 500 local workers who were simply unemployed before they came along. Red Frog went out of their way to hire locals even though they were not qualified and then started a training program to teach them the skills necessary. They have paid construction workers more than the minimum wage required by Panamanian law since the beginning. The management of the Red Frog Beach Club knew going in that they were going to be building a lot of houses and other structures in Bocas del Toro so one of the first things they did was to negotiate a separate work agreement with labor representatives in the area. That agreement was registered with the Ministry of Labor and Work Development (MITRADEL), was perfectly legal, and is still in effect today. According to that agreement, the management of Red Frog Beach Club was paying more to the workers than they were required to pay. They specifically decided to do that in order to avoid strains in labor and management relations. So the obvious question is, "What happened?"

  • Ministry of Labor and Development (MITRADEL): This is the government organization responsible for enforcing labor laws as a branch of the executive central Panamanian government. There is a local MITRADEL office in Bocas del Toro as well as an office in Panama City that is responsible for coordinating regional labor issues presented to regional offices. This strike was an important enough issue to require the presence of national level MITRADEL representatives at the negotiations. What's happening is that in effect the existing agreement between the Panamanian Construction Board (CAPAC) and SUNTRACS is becoming the law of the land, regardless of what MITADREL wants or thinks (for details and further background see "RFBC, CAPAC, SUNTRACS, and Illegal Labor".)

  • "Juan Six-Pack" Construction Worker: These guys are everywhere and are actually the easiest to find and talk to. Just go to any corner store in the early afternoon and you'll find a dozen construction workers sitting in the shade and putting down a few beers after a hard day at work. They are usually more than happy to tell you the straight truth as they see it with regards to organized labor, relations with management and collective bargaining agreements. These salt-of-the-earth guys are tough, smart, weathered, and wise. The young kids generally respect the older grizzled veterans who are usually missing a few body parts or carrying scars as hard-won badges of honor. Anyone who considers them to be either stupid, foolish, or ignorant is just flat-out wrong.

  • The Media: The job of the media is to tell the story to draw readers or listeners in order to be able to sell ad space. Unfortunately news editors are drawn toward controversy and gossip, and the human drama of train crashes and bleeding victims (see "If It Bleeds, It Leads".) Several important (and other not so important) media outlets in Panama became involved in this labor dispute simply by trying to cover the story and doing a poor job of it. A lot of what was published in the major newspapers was either wrong, incomplete, or misinformed.

The Table is Set: OK, here's what happened. In short, SUNTRACS managed to force the management of the Red Frog Beach Club to allow their job site to be unionized, even though they were not required to accept it by law. Red Frog had (has) a signed agreement in place at MITRADEL and in the early meetings between Red Frog and labor leaders which was arbitrated by MITADREL, the government decided in favor of Red Frog because they were following the law. But the SUNTRACS national level leaders know that Red Frog is breaking new ground in Bocas del Toro and they needed to establish a foothold among the workers there. SUNTRACS used their experience and power to force the Red Frog management to agree to pay even higher wages, and to come up to the wage scales established in the SUNTRACS - CAPAC agreement for the Bocas del Toro region.

Not a Member of CAPAC: So, even though the management of Red Frog Beach Club had an existing legal agreement with local labor leaders, was not a member of CAPAC, had a decision in their favor from the MITRADEL, and was paying workers more than minimum wage they were still getting kicked in the teeth by SUNTRACS. Why?

Not A SUNTRACS Job Site: The 500+ construction workers who are building the Red Frog Beach Club are not members of the SUNTRACS labor union. SUNTRACS wanted to break the agreement Red Frog had already signed with the workers in order to be able to collect the 2% union dues. And guess what? The wage increases they were looking for was just a little more than enough to cover the union dues. Did you know that SUNTRACS collects $2.00 for every $100.00 spent on construction payrolls in this country? I didn't. In then end this entire three week strike was illegal to start with (because Red Frog already had a written contract with labor) and comes down to nothing more than an organization move by SUNTRACS to get a foothold in Bocas del Toro with the largest job site in the area, increase their local and national power, and to increase their income and influence. Red Frog was faced with the decision to either roll over and give SUNTRACS what they wanted or continue to read stories in the press about construction workers protesting, burning tires, and terrorizing a small town. Also, they had to agree to allow SUNTRACS to take over as the collective bargaining representative for the job site officially as of 1 January 2007, and to follow every article in the SUNTRACS - CAPAC contract even though they are not members of CAPAC.

A Growing Force: This entire exercise was a demonstration of the growing power of SUNTRACS. If you think they are a powerful force now, wait until the referendum to expand the Panama Canal passes in October and these same guys are the workers doing the jobs sub-contracted to companies from China, Germany, Singapore, Japan, and the United States. There's a lot of money being spent in Panama, and 2% of every dollar spent on labor is going into the SUNTRACS bank account. They are already the 800-pound gorilla and are not going away any time soon.

Reporting on the "Non-Event" Newsflash! The labor strike at the Red Frog Beach Club ended last week on Thursday with the signing of a new collective bargaining agreement, and the workers went back to work on Friday. They have been back on the job for a week now, a "non-event" that was completely ignored by the media. For their troubles Red Frog, like Carlos Pasco and the Camino de Cruces development before them, got a punch in the nose from the media, an (unnecessary) three week labor stoppage, and were basically the victims of an orchestrated effort by a powerful labor union to squeeze them for money and recognition.

Smear and the Internet: I started looking into this whole thing because of a recent smear campaign against Red Frog, and people started asking questions about what was going on. Having done my homework and researched the issues surrounding this entire drama, smearing Red Frog on this labor issue is like blaming the rape on the victim and saying she deserved it for wearing a short skirt. My mother would disagree with that logic - She taught me better than that.