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The Lives of Migrant Workers in Panama

April 15, 2012

It’s a peculiar thing, economic development, because it almost inevitably entails a retreat from a rural, agriculturally-oriented economic system and toward an urban and industrialized (or service-oriented in Panama’s case) economic system.  Around here, it has the curious effect of creating a ‘missing generation’ of 18-35 year olds who take off to the city to try their luck working in construction, as domestic workers, security guards, retail and restaurant workers or even on larger, industrial farms to earn the cash needed to help support their family back here in the Comarca and in other rural areas.

In fact, according to the 2010 census, there are 154,000 Ngäbes living in the Comarca, with about 20,000 more living outside the Comarca. According to the 2010 census, Panama has a total population of a whopping 3,400,000 people. Amazingly, according to another nifty chart I found, nearly 772,000 Panamanians are migrants within their own country, born in a different province than the one they work or live in. On a much smaller scale, it reflects a similar trend in China and Brazil whereby rural families make up a huge influx of migrant workers in the cities.

With the fastest GDP growth rate in the Americas, Panama is enjoying a speedy development that is propelled by construction of a new canal, increased tourism, and agriculture/beef production. All of this growth is creating jobs in the cities for those willing to leave their homes to take them.

For example, I recently met the oldest son, Lazaro, of the President of the agriculture group that I frequently work with. After graduating from high school, he went directly to Panama City to get work as a construction assistant. He had gotten his girlfriend pregnant and realized that he needed cash in order to supplement the food grown by his family.

Like other developed and developing countries, Panama has some strange labor laws that create disincentives for companies to hire workers permanently. As a result, Lazaro’s life revolves around a continuous cycle of 6 month contracts with the company. Companies don’t like to take workers on for longer than 6 months because it becomes difficult to fire them. So, he works 10 hour days for six days a week and waits for national holidays when he can come home and visit.

When I met him, he had just gotten injured on the job and had some burns on his skin from hot asphalt being flung onto him. He got a couple of days off and came back to the Comarca to see his family and bring some money. He looked tired and admitted that he wasn’t happy in Panama, but felt that he had no other option. Plus, we ate chicken that day.

It is also common for young men to work on industrialized farms, banana plantations, coffee farms, sugar cane farms, etc. Coffee picking up in the highlands is the preferred migrant work of Ngäbes on the Pacific side because they can leave for between 1-4 months during harvest season to pluck coffee cherries off the tree. Unlike cutting sugar cane in the hot sun with no trees for shade, coffee is often grown in the shade and in a cool climate. Ngäbes that live on the Atlantic side, however, often work on the banana plantations.

One producer that I know, Diogenes, spent about 15 years as a farm hand on a medium-sized farm that produces beans and bananas. He now lives back in the Comarca and works on his personal farm to grow a variety of goods.

When you shake his hand, it is easy to notice that the pinky and the ring finger are permanently folded inwards. After I got to know him better, he explained that, in addition to the nerve damage on his hand, he has a persistent skin rash from exposure to pesticides and fungicides. He saw a doctor who recommended that he try to avoid the hot sun and try not to sweat too much. Must be difficult for a farmer! I’ve noticed the finger damage in other people but only recently made the connection that it was probably related to chemical exposure on farms.

After a little googling, I found a document from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that found “that agricultural workers suffer from the highest rate of chemically related illness of any occupational group.” If that is true in the US, just imagine the greater risk that employees are exposed to in underdeveloped countries like Panama.

The most frequent job that women seek when they migrate to the cities is a nanny for upper-middle and high income families. In Tole, the Latino town at the edge of the Comarca, there are often signs posted to advertise the need for nannies in larger cities. The posters entice young Ngäbe women to call this service, which will then connect them to a family willing to pay for a nanny.

I wasn’t sure how much a nanny made in Panama but was absolutely shocked when I learned how low it was. Since almost all nannies work in the informal economy, the pay and treatment are even worse than that of the construction worker. They are often expected to live-in, working everyday and at any hour that their employer needs them.

One woman, Eugenia, explained that she called the nanny service and was quickly connected with a family in the city of Santiago. She worked two weeks and was excited to see her first payment. But, she was quickly appalled when she received her envelope to see that it had a mere $15 in it. She was getting paid $1/day for her work. Just to give you an idea, a day laborer in the Comarca earns $6/day and the minimum outside the Comarca is closer to $10/day. So she called the service and was switched to a new family where she was paid $2/day, which seemed to be more her speed because she stuck with the family a while.

As often as I’ve heard horrible nanny experiences many have told me that they grew to feel a part of the family and felt valued for their work. As with anything, I suppose, there exists positive and negative. Here, I’ve highlighted the negative here because these are the stories that make us think deeper and act differently.

I’ve heard of all of the controversy in the States currently surrounding Apple factories in China. Some come to the defense of poor working conditions because the workers themselves so readily accept them, or are even happy to work if it means that they will get enough money to support their families. The same pressure exists throughout the developing world, and Panama is no exception. I think we should continue to be critical of working conditions. If we readily turn a blind eye in the name of development, we are not helping humanity improve itself. On the contrary, only by continually demanding better treatment can we hope to increase equality and therefore true development of healthy, happy, educated and secure families.

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