It has always been a public policy to encourage labor opportunities for handicapped individuals and to prevent employment discrimination against them. In Panama, a big step towards achieving that goal was made with the approval of Law No. 42 of 1999 (“Law 42”) that sought to protect and promote the employment of individuals with physical disabilities. However, almost 15 years into its implementation, there are doubts about the actual reach and benefits that Law 42 has produced.
Law 42 establishes the obligation for all employers in Panama with more than 50 employees to hire handicapped individuals for at least 2% of their total work force. If the employer fails to comply with such rule the Ministry of Labor can impose a fine equal to the amount of minimum wage salary for every handicapped individual not hired on the employer’s payroll. The funds collected through these fines are redirected to create programs to promote training of handicapped individuals.
Despite Law 42’s unquestionable good intentions, business people are facing practical challenges to comply with the rigorous rules provided thereunder. For instance, Law 42 does not distinguish the different type of businesses existing in the country. There are some industries that, given their nature and characteristics, are restricted to individuals without full physical conditions. For instance, a public transportation company whose main manpower are bus drivers would have difficulties trying to find a suitable work place for the handicapped individuals that it would be required to hire under Law 42.
Another issue that is being faced is the fact that individuals are hesitant to be perceived or identified as disabled. Although an individual may be perceived as a handicapped person, his or her resistance to be considered as such may prevent the employer from either hiring such person or, if hired, from getting that person’s willingness to identify himself or herself before the Ministry of Labor as a handicapped person. There is also the case of several businesses that wish to hire handicapped persons, but their job offers are usually denied by individuals that become offended when they are singled out as a hire under Law 42.
Notwithstanding these and other practical problems encountered by business people in Panama, Law 42 continues to be in place and the authorities have little tolerance to those businesses that are not meeting their handicap hiring requirements. All businesses are encouraged to seek legal advise and make sure that they are being compliant with Law 42.