The Panama Canal and Jamaicans have a long historical relationship. One that brings very few, if any, pleasant memories for the elderly who share stories of their grandparents and their own lives with me. Theirs is an intriguing and often painful story of exploitation of cheap labour, deceit, racism and racial segregation, squander and abject poverty. And then the horror stories of the awesome numbers of those who died under inhumane working and living conditions.
Now more Jamaican workers are set to arrive in Panama, to work in the Panama Canal expansion project. Jamaicans migrant workers came to Panama to work during the building of the Panama Canal. Not all were manual labourers.
The First Isthmian Baptist church records reveal that some Jamaican workers came as cooks, headmasters, teachers and even pastors. They mainly came from St. Thomas, Westmoreland and Trelawny. Jamaican migrant workers of the Jamaica Baptist Union (JBU) were the first to bring Baptist witness to Panama.
The Panama Canal Expansion project that kicked off September 3, 2007 is set to complete around 2014. I was there to witness the historic occasion on the 30th Anniversary of the Torrijos-Carter Treaty that supposedly turned over the Panama Canal to Panama. I’ll never forget my historic 1 mile trek from the shores of Paraiso drenched by the pouring rain.
The promise of wealth that lured the then called “West Indians” to Panama’s shores for the building of the Railway, and later the Panama Canal only materialized for a few. And then again, wealth is a subjective term anyway. I wonder what these workers were promised this time.
Roger Hinds, president elect of the Joint Industrial Council is reported by Radio Jamaica to have said,
the Shipping Association will continue to play a vital role in expanding the country’s earnings by facilitating the entry of skilled Jamaican workers in Panama.
A lack of skilled workers is one of Panama’s major challenges. For the amount of employment and business opportunities that this country has, Panama has a highly unskilled labour force. And sadly enough, the country is still locked in the days of “political patronage”. I remember when that was the dominant feature in Jamaican life. If you didn’t know a politician, or if your family didn’t belong to the governing party you could not get a job or similar opportunities.
Panama is still like that. Too many of the people you encounter in public offices have no skills and have no business being in those positions as they have no formal training, they were put in the position as a reward. I am saddened when the youth in my church point out to me that this is one of the reasons they cannot get any jobs.
I suspect that there will be a scramble back in Jamaica for the opportunity to work in Panama. Pearnell Charles, Jamaica’s Minister of Labour and Social Security revealed that his ministry will be taking Jamaicans from an existing pool of port workers. That means, you have to be in the system to be considered. It would hardly make sense to send inexperienced, and unskilled to perpetuate the problem that already exists in Panama.
I hope someone will present a honest picture to my fellow Jamaicans this time. Yes Panama is a beautiful place to live. Working here is not the same as working in Jamaica and if you want to know what that loaded statement means, send me an email.
Jamaican workers arriving in Panama presents a mission outreach opportunity to our congregation and the Central Panama Baptist Association. As a Jamaican pastor in these parts, I’ll stand ready to help my sisters and brothers in whatever way I can.