Iraqi trade unions fight for independence

Submitted by Matthew on 1 August, 2012 - 10:57

The main issue facing Iraqi workers is the government’s attempt to impose a new labour code.

Workers have been working without an official labour code since the fall of the Ba’athist regime. Effectively people have been working on the basis of established traditions, conventions, and practises rather than a legal code.

There was a draft in 2004, but in our view this was worse than the 1936 labour law of the old monarchy! The new labour code also perpetuates Saddam Hussein’s 1987 ban on unions and collective bargaining in the public sector.

The new draft includes 156 articles, and we have serious objections to 140 of them.

The code was produced by the Ministry of Labour, so it’s been produced entirely by representatives of capitalism. There was some sham consultation with “workers’ representatives” — two individuals from government-backed unions were involved — but there was no real participation from independent workers’ organisations.

The new code does include a notional right to join a union, but only unions sanctioned or officially recognised by the government.

Independent unions in Iraq met with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Centre in Lebanon recently to discuss campaigning against the law. We want to pressure the Iraqi authorities, both internally and internationally, on this issue.

We want a labour code based on positive workers’ rights — the right to form independent unions, the right to strike, health and safety benefits, social security, and other basic rights in the workplace.

The government needs to pass it through a second reading in parliament before it can be formally ratified, but they haven’t yet announced when that second reading will be.

We want to stop it getting that far. If it is ratified, that would be a disaster for Iraqi workers.

There is ongoing interference from the Ministry of Labour in the affair of Iraqi unions. There has been a long-running attempt to delegitimise all unions except for a single, government-sanctioned federation.

The Ministry has been holding sham “elections” for “union” representatives — a direct attempt to undermine the internal democracy of the existing federations. Workers are being asked to vote in a general election, regardless of which union they are a member of, for “representatives” who will negotiate with their employers. Authorities have effectively been bribing people to participate in these elections, for example by promising unemployed workers jobs if they vote.

The backdrop is an attempt by Islamist forces within the Ministry of Labour to gain political control of the unions. The Minister of Labour himself (Nassar al-Rubayie) is a supporter of Islamist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The Basra branch of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW) had its offices raided, and there were labour movement protests against this.

This is about the right of workers to choose which union to join and to elect their own representatives.

The imposition of sham elections threatens the independence of the labour movement and to undo everything we have built in the last nine years.

Despite these difficult conditions, there are many industrial disputes and struggles still ongoing in Iraq.

In Basra, there have been large demonstrations demanding electricity services. Many homes are still without electricity, and in the current conditions — which are incredibly hot — it’s awful not to have electricity to power fans, AC etc. These demonstrations have been repressed violently by the army and the police, with many arrests. There have been similar demonstrations in Diwaniya.

Municipal authority workers in Baghdad held a protest in the main local government building in a dispute over housing benefits. Public sector workers have a clause in their contract that guarantees them accommodation, but they have been denied that. Again, the authorities responded very heavy-handedly to the demonstration.

The petrochemical workers in Basra are continuing their campaign against job losses and transfers. Of 5,000 workers at one particular plant, 3,000 have been declared “surplus”, and face lay off or transfer to other workplaces.

Leather workers in Baghdad have also taken action recently, demanding health and safety benefits.

Workers internationally can help our campaign against the government’s labour law by protesting at Iraqi embassy, writing to the Iraqi authorities, and generally raising awareness of the issue.

We need maximum international solidarity to win a labour law based on the protection of workers’ rights.

• For more information on workers’ rights in Iraq, see the USLAW website’s section on the issue here. The FWCUI website is at fwcui.org.