Work on an ambitious expansion of the Panama Canal risks grinding to a halt again because of a labor dispute, the waterway's manager said Monday.
"The expansion is moving ahead at a good pace, (but) we are worried because a project that is so important for our country could be held hostage," Jorge Quijano, the head of the Panama Canal Authority, told a press conference.
The latest strike threat comes from Panama's main union, Suntracs, which has vowed to shut down work on the project to triple the canal's capacity if wage increases are not agreed for the 6,000 workers on the project by Wednesday.
The raises would cost $6 million to $7 million, said Quijano.
He said the consortium carrying out the project, GUPC, had asked the Canal Authority to help foot the bill.
But "this is strictly GUPC's responsibility," he said.
"GUPC can't try to pass its responsibilities off on us yet again."
Originally scheduled for completion last year, the canal project is now only expected to be ready in April 2016.
The project has overrun its initial $5.25-billion budget, leading to disputes between GUPC and the Canal Authority that, together with previous strikes by disgruntled workers, put the upgrade badly behind schedule.
GUPC comprises Spain's Sacyr, Italy's Salini Impregilio, Belgium's Jan de Nul and Panama's Constructora Urbana.
The Panama Canal handles five percent of global shipping, but needs to upgrade its century-old infrastructure in the face of rival bids for market share from Egypt's Suez Canal and a new Nicaraguan canal being planned by a Chinese company.