Panama Canal Expansion To Get Jamaican Port Workers

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.



  1. Marvia:
    I am afraid that you have responded to a totally erroneous report of a meeting between the Jamaican Minister of Labour and representatives of the Joint Industrial Council for the Port of Kingston, which includes the Shipping Association of Jamaica.

    The JIC team has merely suggested to the Minister that Panama was experiencing a labour shortage and that the Government of Jamaica should explore an exchange programme that allowed Jamaicans to offer skills to Panama in this time of that country’s massive expansion.

    The Minister, the Hon Pearnel Charles, invited the Shipping Association of Jamaica and the unions representing our workers to meet with him and work together to explore whether indeed such opportunities do exist.

    There has been no contact with the Panama Canal authorities and no point was made that Jamaicans were being recruited to work on that or any other project at this time. It was merely a suggestion and a consequent agreement to explore whether such opportunities could be available.

    I am afraid you have responded to a news release that was badly written and replete with inaccuracies of fact and of quotation. The incoming Shipping Association of Jamaica President, Mr. Roger Hinds, gave the Minister only the assurance of our organisation’s support with his enquiry.

    I would be happy to provide any further clarification you need.

    Yours sincerely

    Trevor Riley

    • Trevor,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to offer such an important clarification. I’m so sorry to have added to your distress. Given what you have just shared, that RJR report would be upsetting to say the least.

      Unfortunately, though that erroneous news was being circulated in Panama before I heard about it yesterday. One of my members, an employee of the Panama Canal emailed me the story and I can tell you, I was not the only one who got it:-). You have a bit more damage control to do.

      My readers will now have a more accurate understanding of what transpired. However, I believe you should ask Radio Jamaica to make urgent corrections. If or when one is published I’ll be happy to bring it to the attention of my readers.

      Please convey kind regards (and apologies) to President Elect Roger and I hope I did not give him a heart attack so early on the job:-)

      Advent Blessings!

  2. Interesting.

    My forefathers came from Barbados to help build the Canal. They wound up staying.

    My great-aunts have told stories of the racism and mistreatment there. Not surprised that it’s still going on to an extent.

    Thanks for posting, including the clarification in the comments section.

    • Spinster,
      Good to hear from you again:-)
      Gatun Lake of the days of your grandparents are no more. With the expansion of the Panama Canal the landscape will change even more.

      Racism is still alive in Panama. It’s one of those subjects that people still don’t know how to talk about and confront it. Being Black and living in Colon, has given me a firsthand – unpleasant – view on many occasions.

  3. Marvia,
    First I did read the correction so my comment is not directly related to the ‘words’ in the post-but rather to the spirit.
    As I was reading, it occurred to me how people of color have always and always will be the first in line to carry the heaviest loads, endure the most pain and suffering and reap the smallest rewards in the name of progress.
    The story never changes.
    The drive to secure a better future for our loved ones seems to serve to obliterate past injustices just for the hope that “this time” things will turn out differently.

  4. Marvia,
    Unfortunately, many countries and human beings have a tragic history and sometimes the present manifests past tragedies and inequities. Many people throughout history have emigrated in search of a better life somewhere, if not for themselves, for their children. Still today, we witness the struggle of migrant workers. Often times, we can view families`histories as one of emigration, toil and struggle, social disparities and war.
    I just discovered your site and have enjoyed learning and reading about Panama. I want so much to have optimism and hope.
    Thanks, Veraz.

  5. @ Joyce & Veraz
    Yes the time might be different but the challenges of migration is still the same. Perhaps they are getting worse too? As now with us becoming so individualistic, there is very little support for those who are either left behind or uprooted to a new place.

    And we have to wonder if the price for ‘better’ is worth it in all cases. And Veraz, without hope we have lost what it means to be human. So yes we continue to hope for the better.

    @ Veraz Thanks for stopping by. Do visit anytime. Keep on presenting the secrets of Panama’s beauty on yours. Look out for a note requesting some info on Boquete:-)


  6. Thanks Mavis for this inspiring website. What I know about migration and suffering is that my own family’s history is one of upheaval, war, migration, loss and rebuilding. This is like so many other families and their histories.
    Today Obama is sworn in as president of the U.S. Times, they are a-changing.

  7. M. Barton says:

    Is there a log or itinerary of all the Jamaicans that were recruited and went to work on the canal?

  8. Greetings,

    I have search and search for tangible sources that discuss the plight of jamaican labor workers in panama today. I am grateful to have read this discussion. In addition, I would be grateful if I can be lead in the right direction to complete more research. Thank you.

  9. in addition to my previous inquiries, i was interested to gain more insight on the “loaded statement” in your initial posting

  10. edgar hodgson says:

    i am a nicaraguan of jamaican descent.and i am interested in knowing if in jamaica there is any documented info about the migration to central america.

  11. edgar hodgson says:

    people should be aware that racism is not going anywhere,is just that people are learning to be tolerant,in nicaragua racism is alive and well also but thanks to the leftist goverment nobody dare make racist remarks in public,up until 1979 the carribean was treated like another country,still nicaragua is the only country that does not have a road that connect to the pacific,which probably helps us strenght our culture before the invasion of the mestizos, so panama is not alone the entere coast of central america from panama to guatemala have blacks of jamaican descent,i would like to know where can we get info in jamaica about our ancesters.

    • Hello Edgar,
      You are right about the Jamaica-Central America connection especially as a result of labourers migrating for work and merchants for business etc. For more research, you could try the Institute of Jamaica, the National Archives, and of course you could always try Church records as many churches/mission organizations went along with migrant workers such as my denomination the Jamaica Baptist Union did. Best wishes in your research.

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