New Internationalist

Labour the point

October 2004

The US privatization agenda in Iraq sparks a trade union revival

]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.’

David Bacon

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 372 This column was published in the October 2004 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Comments on Labour the point

Leave your comment


  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

...And all is quiet.

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

Get our free fortnightly eNews


Videos from visionOntv’s globalviews channel.

Related articles

Recently in Currents

All Currents

Popular tags

All tags

This article was originally published in issue 372

New Internationalist Magazine issue 372
Issue 372

More articles from this issue

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

– Emma Thompson –

A subscription to suit you

Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.