By Ewa Jasiewicz, Occupation Watch, Occupied Basra
"It's the oil sector first, other sectors will follow. Soon it will change, our influence will be felt."
Hassan Jum'a, Southern Oil Company Union
Southern Oil Company (SOC) workers have won a three month struggle, underpinned by the threat of an armed strike, for higher wages. All oil sector workers in Iraq will now be receiving the SOC's negotiated wagetable. The unity, solidarity and support of oil sector workers in the central and northern fields in Kirkuk, Baaji and Baghdad's Daurra was key in achieving this victory.
Plus the fact that the authorities are heavily dependent on oil production and exports from the SOC, Iraq's biggest and most lucrative oil company. Iraq's northern fields have been made inoperable by continuous attacks on pipelines and stations. The only oil companies exporting crude oil from Iraq right now are SOC and Basra Oil Company.
Fighting for a living wage
Back in December 2003, when SOC workers saw that their wages were being decreed by the Occupation Administration (OA), and that these wages were lower than the emergency payments the OA had been paying just after the Ba'athist regime fell, they decided to form their own wage scale. They based it on market prices - including the price of fuel, gas, rent and foodstuffs, work location, and level of risk. The OA's wage table slashed all family, risk and location payments workers had survived on under the regime. In every workplace Occupation Watch visited, workers were frustrated with their low, late and fluctuating wages, as well as the axing of all their "survival" payments and subsidies which sustained workers and their families.
The SOC union's wagetable demanded the minimum wage for an Iraqi oil worker be set at 155,000 Iraqi Dinar ($100) per month - more than doubling the Occupation's set wage of 69,000 ID (currently worth $50-55). The union's rate also cut out two whole levels and 20 positions of the authority's 130 position, 13 level wagetable.
The union persuaded their management and General Director to support their demands for the homemade scale following two days of meetings in January. The union reinforced their demands by declaring that workers would join the armed resistance if their demands were not met. This prompted the minister of oil to travel to Basra himself and begin negotiations with union reps immediately.
The result was that the lowest minimum wage for the generators of Iraq's wealth, the heart pumping its economic lifeblood, is now 102,000 ID per month - a rise of 33,000 ID.
The whole wagetable now starts at level nine and all those meant to receive level nine wages will now be moved up to level eight, which starts at 120,000 ID ($85) and ends at 155,000 ID ($110). But why this concession for the lowest paid? Why not push for a 155,000 ID minimum?
120,000 ID is barely a life-supporting wage. The lowest rent in Basra is 25,000 ID per month. That leaves just under 20,000 ID per week to spend on food, school books, gas, fuel, car maintenance, clean water, cigarettes, and any other unexpected necessities. A full UN plastic 4-5 litre carrier of drinking water costs 250 ID. A small chicken costs 3,500 ID, 1 kg of apples or oranges is 750 ID, potatoes, 500 ID, a bag of bread (5 pieces) is 250 ID, a canister of gas is approx 2,000 ID. A pair of adult leather shoes is 20,000 ID. A family can just about survive eating basic, simple, rations-bulked food, but it is nearly impossible to save or find the money for a gift or a journey or new item of clothing.
Life is hand to mouth for the vast majority of Iraqi people and that's just for those lucky enough to have work - the estimated 70% or 10 million unemployed have even more of a struggle on their hands.
According to the occupation wagescale over a third (35%) of the Iraqi public sector workforce is on 69,000 to 155,000 ID. 10% - managerial and administration levels receive 574,000 to 920,000.
In fact, there is no compromise. Risk and location payments have been taken into account and a further 18-30% payment is included on top of the tabled figures. Whether North Rumeilla, contaminated by depleted uranium during both Gulf Wars, is included as a risky location is yet to be seen, but the danger presented to workers breathing in the radioactive nuclear waste used by invading US/UK troops is immediate, severe and life-threatening.
Of the victory, Hassan Jum'a, Head of SOC Union, said: "This is something we were sure of. Our sector is the most organized in Iraq and we were elected by the workers themselves."
On the effect of the victory on the swelling struggle in the electricity sector, Jum'a said, "It's the oil sector first, then the other sectors will follow. Soon, it will change, our influence will be felt."
Samir Hanoon, Vice President of the Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions, said he was thrilled by the result and it was already having a positive impact on the electricity unions' negotiations for higher wages. "Soon we'll be next. Our negotiations have been helped by this and they are going well."
The rise for Iraqi workers means a cutback for the exploitative ambitions of the Occupation Administration and a blow to the logic and regularly heard corporate boast that Iraq now has some of the cheapest labour in the Middle East.
All in all, the courage of Iraqi oil workers in recognising and affirming their power as the sector capable of commanding Governing Council ministers to attend to their demands and breaking the perceived "last word" authority of the Occupation Administration, shows that social resistance to the occupation and its dictates is alive and on fire and ready to strike for justice in Iraq.
No one is taking this as a final result, but as a first win in a journey of many, making up for the decades of silencing, violence and murder by the Ba'th dictatorship. And it's also the first move in a social battle waged more than anything to raise the consciousness and confidence of workers, so broken by the Ba'th, to realize that they themselves are a weapon against the injustices and exploitation of the Occupation.