Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Restore Iraqi workers rights

Hopes that a law introduced by Saddam Hussein banning Iraqi public sector workers from joining a trade union may finally be overturned have been raised after the countries recently elected deputy Prime Minister Dr Nuri Shaways met a delegation from the General Federation of Iraqi Workers.

Created in 1987, Article 150 is now the only law yet to be rewritten following the dictators’ downfall eight years ago. Its opponents believe its retention intimidates workers in a country where wages are little more than £170 a month. With inflation pushing up prices this leaves most families below the poverty level, and many are looking to trade unions for help.

Last year the country’s President, Jalal Talabani, and a number of newly elected MPs, agreed to back the General Federation of Iraqi Workers [GFW] demand to scrap article 150. The demands of the GFW, made up of twelve national unions, were supported by overseas trade unions including the TUC.

However any action had to be put on hold until an agreement could be found on the make-up of the new Iraqi government, and it was only in December that Nouri al Maliki was sworn in as Prime Minister, bringing to an end eight months of political turmoil.

Keeping up the pressure the GFW met with Shaways on February 13th, reporting afterwards that he had: “agreed on the importance to enact a new labour law immediately acknowledging the demands made by the international labour organizations and by global trade unions. The Deputy Prime Minister added that a proper labour law will be of benefit to the Iraqi government, Iraqi society and the Iraqi working people in general and added by saying that he shall follow the case for the immediate implementation of labour law. He also supported the GFIW demands for fair, independent and proper workers elections.”

If these fine words can now be turned into concrete action it would be a welcome move for those Iraqi workers who have been so badly let down by the coalition forces that have occupied their country since 2003.

Abdullah Muhsin is the GFW international representative and said: “When the USA led coalition forces removed Saddam we, once again, began to openly organise. We welcomed the promises of Blair and Bush to build democracy, and as organisations who represent workers of all different backgrounds we want to be involved in building a new more open Iraq.”

Yet within days of opening a new office in Baghdad in 2003 Muhsin claims they came under attack when “ten armed vehicles arrived and American forces ransacked our premises. They even ripped down posters denouncing terrorism and sectarianism, which we view as deadly enemies of the workers.”

That was certainly the case on May 10th last year when a textile factory, with a history of trade union organisation, in Hilla, around fifty miles south of the capital, was hit by a series of suicide bombings. These left more than 40 people dead and over a hundred seriously injured.

Less deadly were the attacks in April last year on oil workers, employed by South Refineries in Basra, whose attempt to increase wage levels with sit-ins and a large demonstration were met by the authorities transferring four leaders of the Refinery Workers Union to other parts of the country.  The moves followed events in 2009 when transport workers complained of harassment and denounced the Transport Minister for refusing to recognise the right of their union to negotiate on their behalf.

Abdullah Mushin says that despite these attacks the trade union movement has steadily been gaining strength “because we cut across communities and occupations. We are opposed to religious division, which scares the sectarians who use some of their energies to attack us. Like most Iraqi’s we seek a peaceful end to the occupation forces, as then those who live here can decide how our natural resources can be used. These policies, along with organising in the factories, are gaining popularity. Once article 150 is scrapped we hope to play a full part in building democracy in Iraq.”

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