Iraqi workers fight for wages and jobs

Submitted by AWL on 15 August, 2004 - 10:02

David Bacon describes the development of the Iraqi workers' movement

Labour activity has, since a year ago, spread from Baghdad to the Kurdish north, with the centre of the storm in the south, in the oil and electrical installations around Basra, and the port of Um Qasr.
Workers quickly discovered that the occupation authorities had little respect for labour rights. The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) enforced a 1987 law banning unions in public enterprises, where most Iraqis are employed. CPA head Paul Bremer added Public Order no. 1, banning pronouncements that "incite civil disorder, rioting, or damage to property." Civil disorder can easily apply to organising strikes, and leaders of both the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) and Iraq's Union of the Unemployed have been detained a number of times.

Low wages have driven the upsurge in Iraqi labour activity, including three general strikes in Basra alone. Following the arrival of US troops, Iraqi public sector workers began receiving emergency salaries dictated by the Coalition Provisional Authority - roughly from $60 to $120 monthly. Then the CPA's Order no. 30 on Reform of Salaries and Employment Conditions of State Employees last September lowered the base to $40, and eliminated housing and food subsidies.

Wages for Iraqi longshoremen, working for the port authority in Um Qasr, were cut even further when the occupation started, because their profit sharing arrangement, in which they'd received 2% of unloading fees, was terminated. When authorities decided in October to pay them in Iraqi dinars instead of dollars - another sizeable loss - the workers began organising a union.

On the day they were set to vote on the officers for their new union, Port Director Abdel Razzaq told them the election was cancelled because of the 1987 prohibition. In November, he fired three port workers for trying to organise.

In January dockers struck briefly over the low wage scale. They grew angrier when managers decided to pay them in old bank-notes, worth only 75% of new ones. Razzaq's office was occupied, and the demonstration only ended when he was rescued by occupation troops. A private militia now protects Razzaq.

San Francisco's International Longshore and Warehouse Local 10 condemned the firing of the Um Qasr longshoremen. West coast dock unions stopped work on 20 March to coincide with worldwide demonstrations on the anniversary of the Iraq invasion.

Iraqi workers and unions charge that the US is keeping wages low to attract foreign investors, as Washington plans the privatisation of Iraq's economy. The Bush administration sees Iraq as a free-market beachhead into the Middle East and South Asia. On 19 September 12003 the CPA published Order number 39, permitting 100% foreign ownership of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allowing repatriation of profits.

The threat of privatisation and the influx of US contractors have caused more labour unrest. Workers fear that new corporate owners will cut costs by laying off workers. Companies with fat reconstruction contracts are already trying to perform work previously done by Iraqis. Iraq has no unemployment benefits or any welfare system, so the loss of a stable job in a state enterprise condemns a family to hunger and misery. One obvious advantage, therefore, of having a union is gaining a voice in decisions about privatization and contracting.

Conflict over reconstruction work boiled over last October in a two-day wildcat strike at the Bergeseeya Oil Refinery near Basra. Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), a division of Halliburton Corp., was given a no-bid reconstruction contract to repair oil facilities. KBR brought in a Kuwaiti construction company, Al Khoorafi, using Indian and Pakistani workers. To protect their jobs, Iraqi workers threw them out and protested outside the company's offices.

At the Southern Oil Company, workers then organised a union. Headed by Hassan Ju'ma, they banned foreign workers following the Bergeseeya action. KBR tried to get them to accept its foreign staff but local workers refused to budge. "Iraq will be reconstructed by Iraqis, we don't need any foreign interference," Ju' ma said.

In December, Southern Oil Company workers began challenging the wage schedules. They surveyed prices, and proposed a monthly minimum of $85. Workers threatened to strike and shut off oil production, and said they'd join the armed resistance if occupation troops were called in. The Oil Minister agreed to return to the pre-September scale.

In January, unrest spread to the Najibeeya, Haartha, and Az Zubeir electrical generating stations, where workers mounted a wildcat strike, stormed the administration buildings, declared the September wage schedule void, and vowed to shut off power if salaries were not raised. Again the ministry agreed a return to the old scale.

Southern Oil Company unionists finally forced the CPA to raise wages, with extra pay for working in risky or isolated locations, often attacked by the armed opposition. Following another walkout in February at the Basra Oil Pipeline Company, the SOC wage schedule eventually spread to most worksites in the oil sector. Workers then took the fight to power stations, where they threatened to stop electrical generation.

The installation of the interim administration of Allawi at the end of June did not improve either salaries or respect for labour rights.

* David Bacon - - is a reporter and photographer specialising in labour issues, and a regular contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. This report is abridged from znetmagazine ( Ewa Jasiewicz, in Basra for Occupation Watch earlier this year, contributed to it.

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