This is the most significant wave of action since 2003. There was a massive change in 2003; whether you agreed or disagreed with the war, for the first time in the history of Iraq, people are free to organise, to march and to protest. However, there are limited services and attacks on freedom of association and freedom of speech.
These protests are not limited to one area. The current protests are generated by internal circumstances within Iraq, but it cannot be said that they were not influenced by what took place in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. Eight years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, people still have no jobs, no clean water, no electricity. There's enormous corruption, both administrative and financial. After the last general election in Iraq, it took nine months to form a government and three key ministries are still not functioning. People have had enough with the false promises. That's how the protests started.
The trade unions were the first to organise support for the uprisings in the other countries. We were inside embassies in Baghdad
calling for an end to dictatorship. Like those protests, the protests in Iraq were started by youth movements. That's how it started – with people using mobiles, Twitter and Facebook. Young Iraqis are politically aware. Those were the two trends – one of solidarity with the Arab uprisings, and one of people, particularly young people, demanding their rights.
People cannot travel around. There is no public transport. If you have money you can get a cab, but working-class people are leaving home at three o'clock in the morning and coming back at eight or nine o'clock at night. People are working fourteen or fifteen hours a day and can hardly afford food or rent. Ordinary people have had enough of this.
Iraqi politics is fractured. The forces at the top have their own loyalty and agenda. Our movement is fractured too; the trade union movement is fractured. But we're campaigning for the same thing – we want labour rights, jobs, education, healthcare. We should be working together. These protests can help to unite Iraqis. The simple message is that people want jobs, the provision of basic services, freedom of association and an end to corruption.
There are forces loyal to the former regime of Saddam Hussein that have not disappeared who are within the politics of the country, as well as other forces regionally who are afraid of the spread of this movement. They're trying to do whatever they can to destabilise the situation.
We're still campaigning to win a labour law. In December 2008, the ITUC and ILO held a meeting with all the Iraqi union federations. That meeting came up with a draft, and that draft was backed by all participants. That went to the government in 2009 and it was submitted to the council of ministers. They made some amendments and sent it back to the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs. The meeting in Erbil in 2010 brought the unions together again to discuss the draft. The key question is the right of public sector workers to organise. We will not accept any labour law that does not allow this right. The latest information we have is that the council of ministers has agreed it and has sent it to parliament to adopt it. Fundamentally we want a law that allows pluralism and the right of public sector workers to organise. The current draft only names the General Federation of Iraqi Workers and professional association as recognised trade-union bodies; we're in favour of pluralism and the right of other union federations to organise. We've worked together with the Federation of Workers' Councils and Unions in Iraq but we can't force the state to put their name on the document. In general we're very clear that we're in favour of pluralism and we will not be moved on this. Iraq is new to democracy and many of the people within the political structure do not see eye-to-eye with the trade unions, especially when we campaign around issues such as women's rights. GFIW has representation at the ILO, which is how our name has made it into the draft law. But why can't we develop a common approach? In Britain, when the TUC meets with the government there aren't representatives from every union. Why can't we have the same in Iraq?
Part of the problem with the law is that it doesn't see many public sector employees as workers. It sees white-collar workers as “civil servants” rather than workers. That's a major problem which we need to address. The teachers' union is now organising freely inside Iraq; their assets and funds have been released. But they have to organise as an “association”. The white-collar associations that exist have little networking between them. We are working to bring them together to form structures between them and bring them into the fold of the GFIW.
The electricity workers' union's offices are still shut after being raided last July. The state has accused them of corruption, but they themselves are corrupt. The union has come back with a strong message, supported by ICEM and ITUC, demanding the right to organise. We launched an initiative to bring all the unions in the electricity sector together to form one union; they're campaigning for the same thing. A second meeting will take place very soon and hopefully there'll be a merger. I don't know whether colleagues from FWCUI will join but they are aware of this initiative. Al-Shahristani, the minister who de-recognised the electricity union, also victimised oil workers' leaders in the south and transferred them away from their jobs. The oil union in Kirkuk has also been very active and have been protesting since 12 February. Their demands include permanent contracts for temporary workers, an end to corruption and family patronage, the right to organise, and an improvement in wages and working conditions. Oil workers in Baghdad have organised a demonstration in front of the oil ministry in Baghdad demanding the same thing.
We are also in contact with colleagues in the south such as Hassan Juma'a, who has also raised a grievance about GFIW being the only trade-union centre mentioned in the draft labour law. We try to bring people together, but there is no structure for this.
We have a relationship with the new trade unions in Egypt. We organised some symbolic solidarity actions in support of what was going on in Egypt. In most Arab countries there are state-run unions, but a change of regime will mean a change of structure and pluralism. We support pluralism and democracy but we do not support state-run trade unions.