Panama: Marta Matamoros

I am too old now to be active in the movement. If I were still in the movement, I am sure they would put me back in jail, because I would denounce every single injustice.

— Marta Matamoros

A pioneer of the trade union movement and in the struggle for women's rights in her native Panama, Marta Matamoros has turned her solitary life of self-sacrifice into a gift for other people. She has fought many battles, suffered persecution and imprisonment, but, thanks to her, women workers in Panama now enjoy maternity rights. Loved and admired, she lives in an elderly home in what used to be a US military base in the Canal Zone.

Marta Matamoros, a young Panamanian girl, born in 1909, started to work in El Bazar Francés, a company that made clothes for the Canal troops, for government employees and for members of the diplomatic corps. “The conditions were unhealthy and humiliating for the women who worked there. There was very little space, the heat was suffocating and everything was controlled, even when we went to the bathroom. The wages were terribly low.” She joined the trade union, and they managed to get the company to pay the workers the Panama Day holiday. Soon afterwards, she was fired, but by then she had discovered that her destiny was in the defense of human rights. “In the factory I witnessed the fatigue of the pregnant women. They worked right up till the last day and left directly to give birth. Many lost their jobs.” Marta launched a draft bill for paid maternity leave, and the National Assembly approved it. The employers did their best to evade the law by laying off women they suspected of being pregnant. Marta's next fight was to get the women to be reinstated. She participated in the struggle to decolonize the Panama Canal. She played a leading role in the movement to establish a minimum wage and a substantial reduction in the rent for housing for people in need. She was imprisoned several times, but her family's support and her achievements gave her strength. “In 1972, we fought for a maternity law by which no woman could be fired during the first year after giving birth.” It was another success story. Now, loved and admired, she lives off her pension in an elderly retirement home.

Union of Tailors and Similars of Panama Panamanian Women's Alliance National Center of Workers of Panama