Iraqi unions resist anti-worker labour law

Submitted by Matthew on 23 May, 2012 - 7:19

The unions in Iraq are continuing our joint campaign against the imposition of a new labour law, and against governmental interference in union elections.

The labour code the government is currently proposing represents only the interests of the factory owners and big business. It’s worse than the labour laws of the Saddam era. It guarantees no basic workers’ workers, and prevents freedom of association and strikes. It also relates only to the private sector, as public sector workers are formally considered “public servants” rather than workers.

It would institutionalise a 48-hour week, which is the same as the first formal labour code in Iraq — from 1936, under a monarchy! It also discriminates against women workers by attempting to codify a tradition whereby widowed women leave the workplace and stay at home. There’s also discrimination against non-Muslim workers; the right to time off for Islamic religious holidays and ceremonies is recognised, but this ignores the great number of Nepalese and other East Asian migrant workers now working in Iraq.

The unions have held meetings and negotiations with representatives from the Ministry of Labour, which are ongoing. Unions will meet together on Saturday 19 May to discuss our ongoing campaigning and plan a conference.

We want any labour code to include legal guarantees of the right to strike and the right to organise. We want guarantees of healthy and safety, unemployment benefit and redundancy payments, none of which are guaranteed by the proposed law.

There have been some big struggles in Iraq recently against job losses.

On 17 and 18 April, workers staged sit-in protests and demonstrations at a petrochemical plant in Basra. 5,000 workers are employed by the company but the plant is operating at less than half its capacity; bosses say this means they have to lay off 3,116 workers. Hundreds of workers held a sit-in, followed by a general assembly of over 1,000 workers the following day. They demonstrated at the local government building and the authorities promised to intervene to protect jobs, or to ensure that the workers were relocated or retrained, or at least that they received redundancy settlements. It looks as if the job losses may have been postponed till 2013.

There are still problems in many workplaces with foreign investors using foreign labour to undercut domestic labour. At a refinery in Erbil, Iraqi workers have worse pay and worse conditions than migrant workers. In Kerbala, there is a dispute around workload at a cement factory operated by the French company Lafarge. Foreign investors like Lafarge have taken over the operation of a lot of factories and plants with old equipment and, despite committing to upgrade it, have failed to make improvements. However, they still expect workers to maintain production rates that the machinery isn’t really capable of. Workers at the Lafarge plant in Kerbala want a production rate of 60,000 tonnes per month but the bosses are demanding much more than that. Workers have struck to demand pay increases to match the increased workload.

These sort of problems and disputes can be expected to continue and increase as the government wants the Ministry of Industry to become self-financing over the next year.

This will mean a great deal more privatisation and private investment.