Iraq: unions press for labour law

Submitted by martin on 29 August, 2009 - 10:52 Author: Rhodri Evans

According to Iraq Oil Report (4 August), the Ministry of Industry and Minerals has written a memo “advising” its employees to avoid unions.

The move highlights how the consolidation of the Maliki government in Iraq, and of something approaching real government administration in the country, cuts two ways.

The government is more assertive with the USA. It organised celebrations when US troops quit Iraq’s cities on 30 June. There was some fudging at the edges of that withdrawal, but the US troops have largely stayed out of the cities since, and are due to withdraw completely by December 2011.

Iraq’s stronger government is also a government equipped with a decree from 1987 — one of the very few Saddam-era edicts left on the books by the USA after its period of more or less direct control in 2003-4 — which bans all unions in the public sector, where two-thirds of all Iraq’s full-time workers are employed.

Iraq’s 2005 constitution calls for a new labour law, and a draft is with the Council of Ministers, but meanwhile the 1987 decree stands.

“The Minister advises employees to avoid dealing with any illegal structures of this kind,” says the memo. “There are several entities and illegal structures in some of the public companies that claim they are defending workers’ rights. They are dealing with these issues in an illegal manner to the limit of causing problems and chaos which as a result obstructs the production process in those companies.”

Oil workers, also public-sector, have faced similar warnings and defied them. The Iraqi Teachers’ Union saw off an attack on its organisation (using a different decree) earlier this year.

But the more confident the government gets, the greater the danger. The question is whether Iraqi workers and unions can gain confidence and strength even faster. Encouragingly, oil workers in Basra have threatened to block BP and the Chinese National Petroleum Corp. from entering the big Rumaila oilfield under the terms of a contract recently awarded by the Iraqi Oil Ministry. The workers insist that foreign firms should be involved only in restricted circumstances, monitored by the workers.

Sectarian violence and social conditions in Iraq remain hellish, but still short of the muffled civil-war level of 2006 and the first eight months or so of 2007.

In a hugely oil-rich country, over 31% of the population never have access to safe, clean drinking water, according to the US government’s latest report. Electricity output has increased, but 49% of Iraqis never get an electricity supply they find adequate. Unemployment remains very high. Oil production is down a bit on 2009; though oil prices are now rising, Iraqi government revenues were hit in the early part of 2009 by much lower prices than in most of 2008.

Nevertheless, the consolidation of the government continues. Iraq is in line to take direct control of its oil revenues from the end of 2009 (at present the revenues are still all first paid into a fund held in New York). And Maliki has hinted that for the elections coming in January 2010 he may break from the Shia-Muslim coalition (with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadr movement) on whose ticket he was elected in December 2005, instead trying to muster Sunni and secular allies.

Iraqi unions are still pushing for a democratic labour law to give unions legal protection. US trade unionists, organised in US Labor Against the War, are actively backing their campaign. British trade unionists should do so too.

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