Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Iraqi workers face fight for union rights

Iraq’s newly formed government is under pressure to reverse its decision to derecognise the countries major trade union federation. 

Created in 2005 the General Federation of Iraqi Workers [GFIW] is made up of 12 national unions. These emerged from decades of clandestine activity after the USA coalition led forces brought Saddam Hussein’s barbarous rule to an end in 2003. In a country where the average wage is under £200 a month the unions have sought to push up wage levels alongside campaigning for a more democratic Iraq.

Last year the GFIW was encouraged by the country’s president, Jalal Talabani, expression of support for the scrapping of Article 150. A hangover from the 1980s this banned public sector workers from joining trade unions. The hope was that once the political stalemate, that followed parliamentary elections in early 2010, had been resolved the subsequently formed Iraqi government would lift the ban.

Instead of which has come news - that following Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s inclusion of representatives from all of the countries major political blocs in his cabinet  - that further restrictions are to be placed on trade unions rights to organise.

New Minster of Labour and Social Affairs, Nasser-al-Rabie, belongs to the Sadrist Party led by the radical Islamist Muqtada al-Sadr. In April Rabie announced he was derecognising the GFIW. On April 17th its offices were entered by troops that according to one of those present, GFIW international representative Abdullah Muhsin: “terrified everyone by pointing their armed weapons in people’s faces until we were forced to leave. We protested saying that we are not appointed by the government, but it did little good.”

The federation has since faced down arrest threats by re-occupying the offices. Demonstrations have been organised and an appeal has been made to the government to change its mind. Two sympathetic lawyers are working for free on taking out a court case. In the meantime appeals have been made for international support.

Here in Britain the Trades Union Congress [TUC] is backing the GFIW. A spokesperson said it was a “legitimate trade union movement that includes people from all parts of Iraq and all different religious groups. If there is to be a democratic Iraq then the right for workers to organise and participate in political affairs must be respected.”

The TUC he said was working with the International Labour Organisation and had urged the Government, and in particular, Foreign Secretary William Hague to raise the issue with his overseas counterparts. “William Hague has previously been good on workers’ rights in Iraq,” said the TUC spokesperson.

According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office its “officials at the British Embassy in Baghdad are aware that the British government is concerned at the withdrawal of recognition rights for the GFIW. We understand that the Government of Iraq may now be reconsidering their position.

“We, working with our EU partners, will continue to support efforts by the TUC and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to encourage the Government of Iraq to frame their labour legislation in a way that meets ILO standards and protects the rights of Iraqi workers.”

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