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Labour the point

]Iraqi workers lost no time in reorganizing their country’s banned labour movement once the US occupation of Iraq began over a year ago. The resulting union activity is helping Iraqis secure higher wages despite the best efforts of US-appointed governing bodies and companies to contain them. As Washington plans the privatization of Iraq’s economy, Iraqi workers and unions accuse the US of keeping wages low to attract foreign investors. On 19 September 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority – headed by US diplomat Paul Bremer as an interim administration in post-Saddam Iraq – published Order 39 to permit 100-per-cent foreign ownership of businesses. It also listed a host of state enterprises to be sold off, including cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulphur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country’s airline.

Around the same time, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) lowered the wage base for Iraqi public-sector employees (the majority of the Iraqi workforce) from the rates set when US troops first arrived in Iraq – ranging from $60 to $120 – to $40 monthly. The CPA also eliminated housing and food subsidies. In addition, it enforced a 1987 law banning unions in public enterprises and added ‘Public Order No 1’, which allows the arrest of anyone who ‘incites civil disorder’. This course has not materially altered since the CPA handed power over to a US-appointed Iraqi government in June this year.

The lowering of wages and benefits has encouraged an upsurge in labour activity. Thus when Iraqi longshore staff in the port authority in Um Qasr began organizing a union in November last year, Port Director Abdel Razzaq fired three port workers for trying to organize. Razzak had been installed by the US company given the contract to operate the port – Stevedoring Services of America. He was fired as a result of the worker protests. While dockers still don’t have recognition for their union, six workers’ committees now operate openly in Um Qasr and other ports. Wages for dockers now start at 75,000 ID ($53) per month.

Then, in December, South Oil Company workers threatened to strike against the CPA’s September wage reduction. The Oil Minister immediately agreed to return to the pre-September scale. Unrest spread to the Najibeeya, Haartha, and Az Zubeir electrical generating stations where workers mounted a wildcat strike and stormed the administration buildings. The Ministry agreed to return to the old scale.

South Oil Company unionists finally forced the CPA to raise wages: a concession that eventually spread to most oil workers, and then to power stations.

Other sectors have followed. The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions has managed to force de facto recognition for metalworkers at Baghdad’s Al Nassr car parts factory, and a minimum wage of 150,000 ID ($106) per month. The Railworkers Union increased wages for workers at Railways of the Iraqi Republic from 75,000 ($53) to 125,000 ID ($88) per month, with equal pay for men and women.

But a new threat looms. If public industries and utilities privatize, workers fear new corporate owners will cut costs by laying off workers. A recent study by the economics faculty of Baghdad University, reported by Al Jazeera, says unemployment has hovered at 70 per cent since the occupation began. Iraq has neither unemployment benefits nor welfare systems, so the loss of a stable job in a state enterprise condemns a family to hunger and misery.

‘Multinational companies should not be allowed to reap easy profits at the cost of the well-being of Iraqis,’ says Abdullah Muhsen, international representative of the IFTU. ‘The IFTU welcomes foreign investments that bring much-needed technology and jobs for Iraqis. But we oppose privatization.’

New Internationalist issue 372 magazine cover This article is from the October 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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