Giuliana Sgrena on Iraq's new trade unions

Submitted by AWL on 1 April, 2005 - 11:19

An article on Iraq's new trade unions by Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian journalist kidnapped by a "resistance" gang, eventually released, and then shot by American troops on her way to the airport. It was written shortly before she was kidnapped, and is translated from Il Manifesto.

“$100 unemployment benefit now.” This is the demand that the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq (UUI) has been placing on the new Interim Government these last weeks since the “transition of power.” This is not to say, however, that the UUI has any illusion in the abilities of the new government.

The slogan appears on a banner on a wall in a room on the second floor of a dilapidated building on Rachid Street, in the historic centre of Baghdad. It was here that we met Qasim Hadi, the General Secretary of the UUI (which lists 350,000 members) and Falah Alwan, the President of the Federation of Workers’ Council and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), initiated by the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI).

Without electricity, the fans aren’t working and the windows that open onto the Tigris give some relief from the heat but also bring in the stench of sewage thrown into the undergrowth.

Unemployment is without doubt of one Iraq’s most dramatic problems after one and a half years of occupation. It’s difficult to get accurate figures in a country without any institute of statistics, and even census returns aren’t reliable. After the collapse of the former regime, a number of exiles returned and some people left. Estimations figure that there of around 25-26 million inhabitants, there are 12 million unemployed workers. In percentage terms, this means that 85% of the active population is without work.

“Even the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recognises this percentage,” says Hadi, “but it doesn’t count women in its figures, who also want work that they can’t find.”

If before the war 60% of the population survived solely because of the rations given by the “oil for food” programme, today this percentage has unquestionably increased.

Hadi says that because of “the politics of the former regime, antecedent wars, thirteen years of sanctions and the recent war, factories have been destroyed and infrastructure has not been rebuilt. After one year, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Governing Council (IGC) have done nothing to improve the situation.”

Negotiations of the unemployed works with the CPA did not return any results.

“We pulled out of the negotiations after a meeting with the Council for Social Affairs of the CPA and a member of the Ministry for Labour, because they weren’t serious. They didn’t have any strategies for dealing with the problem of unemployment.”

The unemployed workers’ representatives, even in placing the demand for benefits to the new government, didn’t maintain any illusions after the 1st of July.

“Everything that happened after the 9th of April has been decided on the backs of the people, and we think it’s going to continue as before,” Hadi says.

“Perhaps the formal structures will change, but not the civil society destroyed by the war,” adds Falah Alwan, who raises another problematic issue – the labelling of his union federation as “illegal.” In effect, the IGC on the 28th January 2004, gave legitimacy to only one union federation – the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). Alwan considers this a replication of the methods of the Ba’athist regime: “the result of an agreement which only took place between the government, and the parties represented in the government, without any of them being elected.”

The FWCUI presented a denunciation of this process to the ILO, which should reach a decision on the matter in November. The principal accusation of the FWCUI – the “illegal” union federation – concerns therefore the absence of democracy, which directly effects the FWCUI.

“Workers in Iraq still hold onto some habits developed in the Ba’athist era. They prefer a trade union linked to the government, because they believe this will give them greater advantages. We’ve had some difficulty, therefore, in recruiting members. The great majority of our members (16,000) are oil workers from the north, around Kirkuk,” Alwan told us.

The declared membership figures for both federations are interesting and not really comparable. The IFTU claims to have between 800,000 and 1,000,000 members (around 80% of employed workers), as opposed to the FCWUI membership which is in the tens of thousands.

As regards the election of leadership bodies, the congresses are in progress and the leadership of the IFTU will only be elected at their completion (whereas before it has been appointed).

These are figures that corroborate the decision of the government, according to the representatives of the IFTU. “It’s the workers who’ve given us legitimacy,” says Hadi Ali, Vice-President of the IFTU, who has an office in the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP).

The dispute over workers’ representation is therefore a dispute between parties of the left. “Even the European trade unions have recognised that our federation is the most representative. That’s why the IGC gave us legitimacy. But we don’t want to have a monopoly – all we want is to defend the rights of workers.”

But the problems of recognition don’t end there.

In the post-Saddam era, the structures of the old regime (state-unions and labour fronts) also claim to represent Iraqi workers through other organisations. The International Federation of Arab Workers, whose headquarters are in Damascus, continues to recognise the [state-run] General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), defeated at the same time as Saddam’s regime, but whose officials – including its president, Jamil Salman al Juburi – can still be found in the Syrian capital.

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