Panama canal workers sue U.S. for $1.2 billion
MIAMI, Florida (Reuters) -- A union representing 30,000 former Panama Canal
workers sued the United States government for $1.2 billion on Thursday, saying
its workers are owed Social Security and severance pay.
The Association de Empleados del Area Canalera, which represents the
Panamanian workers, has filed suit against the Panama Canal Commission, the
Secretary of the Army, and the Secretary of the Treasury in United States
District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
The union alleged that the U.S. government owes at least $300 million in
Security payments that should have been made between 1979 and 1999, when
the Panama Canal Commission operated the canal. The government also
neglected to pay severance pay when it ceased operation of the canal, according
to the lawsuit. The union is also asking for $900 million in punitive damages.
The problems date back to 1979, when the United States first began operating
under the Panama Canal Treaty, Steven Marks, the attorney for the group, said
at a news conference.
While operating abroad, the United States was required to abide by a Panamanian
law providing workers with a "13th month" of pay each year, Marks said.
Two-thirds of that amount -- equivalent to one month's salary -- was to go to the
Panamanian government for employer Social Security contributions, Marks said.
The final third was a bonus.
Marks said the United States neglected to make the payments for any of
years it operated the canal.
Workers did not raise the issue at the time because they feared for their
Marks said. Also stifling the workers was that unions at the time were
fragmented groups -- not a united organization, he said. Even so, Marks said it
was "curious" that they did not take action.
As U.S. government employees, the Panamanian canal workers were entitled
severance pay when the United States gave the canal back to Panama in 2000,
said Marks, who said that U.S. workers did get severance.
"The workers were treated differently," Marks said. "And did not receive
same rights as their co-workers who were U.S. citizens."
Marks said the "Panama government as high as the president has stated support
for this claim," however the government has opted not to be a plaintiff.
Copyright 2001 Reuters.