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One dead as Panama labor unrest erupts

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Protests by striking banana plantation workers and Panama Canal builders left one man dead in clashes with police and dozens injured on Thursday as labor unrest erupted in Panama, authorities said.

At least one man died as riot police firing tear-gas battled banana plantation workers in western Panama who had blocked roads in a strike near the town of Changuinola. The labor stoppage began last week to protest a new law that weakens unions.

Hospital authorities in Changuinola said 54 people were treated for injuries following the clashes.

In a separate incident, 48 striking workers on a $5.25 billion project to widen and deepen the Panama Canal were fired and at least six were arrested after refusing to return to work, said Luis Ernesto Carles, a deputy minister of labor.

The unrest follows a bill signed by President Ricardo Martinelli last month that dents union power and gives companies the right to suspend the contracts of striking workers and hire replacements.

“The law doesn’t permit work stoppages in the canal zone,” Carles said. He added that legitimate worker complaints over problems with mess halls and change rooms were being resolved. “Work restarted this afternoon.”

Canal traffic was not affected by the labor troubles.

To make way for larger ships, Panama is carrying out the first major expansion of the canal since it was opened in 1914. The enlargement is due to completed in 2014, the centenary of the canal’s opening.

Reporting by Sean Mattson in Panama City: Editing by Tim Gaynor