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Panama: Wage Policy and Labor Code
Country Study > Chapter 3 > The Economy > Human Resources and Income > Wage Policy and Labor Code


Panama's salaries were high by regional standards in the mid1980s . In a 1982 study comparing salaries in manufacturing, Costa Rica's average monthly salary was only 41 percent that of Panama's; Guatemala's, 71 percent, and Honduras's, 84 percent. In 1985 the average monthly salary in Panama was US$450, but that figure was influenced by salaries in the canal area, which averaged US$1,300 per month. In 1985 the minimum wage in the metropolitan area was US$0.82 per hour; that wage was adjusted for location and type of industry.

In the 1970s, the government became heavily involved in labor matters and intervened actively to increase wages. Although a labor code had existed for many years, only the minimum wage provisions were consistently enforced. In 1971 two decrees were issued; the first imposed an education tax and the second required employers to pay workers an extra month's wage each year.

In early 1972 a broad labor code, patterned after that of Mexico, substantially changed labor-management relations. Workers' security, benefits, and bargaining power were increased considerably. Collective bargaining and unionization were encouraged and resulted in rapid growth of union membership.

Although the 1972 labor code contributed to political stability in the 1970s, it substantially raised costs for employers, especially those in labor-intensive activities. The code also created disincentives to further hiring and private investment. Employers were prohibited from reducing a worker's salary. Therefore, piecework and assembly-type industries could not reward workers on the basis of productivity. As a partial result of these rigidities, Panama's labor costs were among the highest in the Caribbean Basin. According to a 1984 World Bank report, the annual cost of running a textile plant with 500 workers was US$588,300 in Haiti; US$789,800 in Costa Rica; US$919,700 in the Dominican Republic; US$1,048,500 in Colombia; US$1,057,600 in Mexico; and US$1,156,700 in Panama. Only Jamaica's costs were higher (US$1,828,300).

The labor code caused the effective cost of wages to rise, fueling inflation and discouraging private investment. The government, unable to devalue the currency, was forced to address the root of the problem -- high labor costs. Law 95, which became effective in 1977, modified provisions of the labor code that related to job security and benefits. Previously, employers could only dismiss workers during their first two years on the job; that term was extended to five years. New provisions inhibited union actions, such as strikes, and imposed a two-year moratorium on collective bargaining agreements, which froze wages.

As a condition for the disbursement of a structural adjustment loan, the World Bank in 1985 recommended making the code more flexible. Panama's then-President Nicolás Ardito Barletta Vallarino (October 1984-September 1985) fully backed the World Bank recommendations. Opposition from unions and from within his own party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Democrático -- PRD), forced Ardito Barletta to withdraw the proposed changes and contributed to his resignation. His successor, Eric Arturo Delvalle Henríquez, was more successful. In March 1986, the Legislative Assembly approved major reforms in the labor code, in spite of widespread protests and a ten-day work stoppage by the unions. The changes included production-based wages, uniform rates of overtime pay, piecework provisions, removal of protective measures in industry, and flexible agricultural pricing. On the whole, the labor code modifications were aimed at making Panama's industry and agriculture more competitive internationally and expanding employment opportunities. Nonetheless, the economy was deemed likely to continue to experience high unemployment, especially in the metropolitan area, where unemployment rates tended to be much higher than the national average.

Data as of December 1987

Last Updated: December 1987

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Panama was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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