A 1995 law significantly expanded the right of workers to establish unions. However, only about 10 percent of the workforce is unionized. There are over 250 active unions with approximately 80,000 members. Many employees in the public sector , including police and health-care workers, are not allowed to strike. In addition, the 10,000 employees who work for the Panama Canal Authority are also not allowed to strike.
There are laws against child labor, but children between the ages of 12 and 14 may work on farms or as domestic workers. In addition, children as young as 9 are employed in occupations such as street vendors, car washers, or baggers in grocery stores. Nonetheless, the government estimates that the worst excesses of child labor occur in agriculture, especially on coffee, sugar cane, and banana plantations. Children between the ages of 14 and 16 may be employed with a 36-hour workweek. The national workweek is 48 hours with a minimum one day rest period per week. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for overseeing worker health and safety issues.
Panama has the highest minimum wage in Central America. The nation's minimum wage varies from province to province and ranges from US$0.80 percent per hour to US$1.50 per hour. The highest wage is in the capital region, the lowest is in the rural regions. The government of President Mireya Elisa Moscoso Rodriguez plans to increase the minimum wage by 40 percent by 2005. In spite of the minimum wage, most workers in the rural areas only earn between US$3 to US$6 per day. Government estimates are that as much as 39 percent of the population earns less than the minimum wage. Women earn an average of 20 percent less than men do in similar occupations. Women also face discrimination in hiring and promotion.