[Published Jan 8, 2004 on Occupation Watch]
Five days ago, workers in Najebeeya and Haatha power plants, and power stations in Khor Zubair and She’iba, staged protests and walk-outs over low wages and long hours. In Najibeeya workers attacked the administration building and the boss himself Hammad Salem Rghadbaan – a man notorious for mistreating workers and now protected by the usual boss-propping heavies in Basra SCIRI’S Badr Brigades, muscle also for Iraqi Port Authority chief and many a worker Molotov target – Abdel Razzaq.
Rgahdbaan, a former influential Baathist, enjoys a stretch- office complete with massive satellite televison, sofas, an expensive, imposing desk and male mignions serving crystal bowls full of chocolate treats. He denys the existence of unions, using Bremer’s issue on Organization in the Workplace to delay all recognition, pressurizes building workers at the plant to halt construction on the union’s HQ, has allowed a former buddy employee to effectively squat the plant’s nursery with his family, despite them having their own house in Gurna and leaving 28 kids shut out from a safe space to dwell in during the day and women workers to bear their kids on their arms or walk with them in baleful tow. The current new nursey space the former canteen – is a loose electricity-cable dangling shaft of a place, devoid of furniture and being renovated at a painstaking slow pace. Rghadbaan also pays out slavewages (2000 ID per day just over a dollar a kg of apples, a kg of potatoes and packet of cigarettes) to retired workers forced back to work out of desperation, and a basic $60 per month for most under 5-years service workers at the last count two months ago. Women are also discriminated against in their wages receiving 10,000-20,000 ID less than their male counterparts, per week – an undercut of over a whole day’s wages. This swindle is also a violation of International Labour Convention 100 on equal renumeration which Iraq is a signatory to. Rgadbaan also assaulted the plant’s only female trade unionist, and mother (who brings her 5-year-old son Saif with her everywhere she goes) and an outspoken critic of the management. Friends inform me that she was shoved by him, which is here is culturally akin to a full attack. There is also no safety equipment at Najebeeya no boots, new suits, glasses, masks, gloves, first-aid equipment, emergency communication system or safety belts. No major necessary reconstruction has been carried out yet either, nine months on into the occupation.
Rgadan, a known tightwad in the wage stakes also scrimped on the annual Eid bonus. Whilst some public sector workers received as much as 70,000 ID ($40) Rghadbaan gave his workers 5,000 ID ($3). During the protests at the plant, workers stormed the administration building, attacked Rgadban’s offices, hauled the boss himself up by his lapels and gave him a beating. Haartha workers held similar protests, again over low wages and poor conditions. Many work 15-hour days when an official day should be six, in noisy, carbon monoxide fumed environments, with no safety equipment. Again, similar to Najebeeya, there is no emergency communication devices to inform workers six floors up of any potentially lethal malfunctions. The main boiler turbine in the control section is caked in mud to keep it cooled, as the automatic cooling system broke-down long ago. The safety equipment, any which wasn’t stolen or looted dates back to the 80s and is insufficient.
Haartha power plant is currently running at 25% capacity, with only one of its generators operational which was reconstructed autonomously by workers using canibalised spare parts from other damaged generators. Bechtell, the US corporation which won the contract to conduct emergency repairs on bomb-smashed electricity plants has been paralysed in its efforts to even begin reconstruction. Japanese technology giant Mitsubishi built Haartha 20 years ago. Only Mitsubishi owns all the drawings, plans, and crucially the spare parts which make up the plant the South’s largest and most significant. And Mitsubishi are officially staying out of Iraq, due to the security situation, for another two full years. The options for re-charging Basra with electricity are slim and rely on either taking apart the massive generators and making moulds out of the moribund parts, or shiping in entire mobile power plants an expensive, unstable and unsustainable solution. Basra experiences blackouts daily, sometimes three times a day. The old Baghdad Baath first system of diverting 70% of the country’s power to the capital and starving out the unruly south persists. Noone drinks from the tap – the unpurified salty water and DU cause everyones hair to fall out in matted clumps in the shower; skin cracks and rashes flare up, especially amongst young children with sensitive skin. And those who cannot afford to fill the 250 ID 5 litre UN plastic water carrier have to suffer the thirst-stoking tap stuff. Bechtell, which provoked an insurrection in Cochabamba, Bolivia when it privitased water, shooting rates up 60%, is now responsible for repairs to the damaged Basra Sweet water Canal. According to an engineer I spoke to working on the project, said that Bechtell were just doing minor repairs and that the canal was being slowly re-abled rather then reconstructed and that workers are still using inadequate sanctions-weary equipment.
The feedback from the management of all the plants and stations affected by the workers protests was basically: ‘Our hands are tied. It’s a CPA ruling’. And indeed, the occupation government has instituted its own laws, including the lowering of public sector wages. Emergency payments were $60, $100, $120 and $220 at the beginning of the Occupation. Now the lowest wage on the CPA 130-position table is 69,000 ID ($40) with three grades and 31 positions to be undergone before a worker can reach the lowest previous CPA emergency payment of $60 equal to a Grade 9, Step 1 102,000 ID. Order 30 on Reform of Salaries and Employment Conditions of State Employees also eliminated all previous house, food, family, risk and location subsidies.
Electricity sector union reps, including Najebeeya’s Hashimiya Masin Hussein, visited Basra’s Governor, Wael Abdul Lahtif and informed him of their resolution on the CPA wagescale. ‘If our wages are not corrected we will stop all the signs of life here, we will shut down all the electricity in Basra’. And if the leccie cuts out, after three or four days, so do the gas and oil plants, businesses, shops, and hotels. The current strike threats echo those of the Southern Oil Company Union two weeks ago, which had the Oil Minister scarpering to Basra to hold emergency talks with union heads in order to avert the promised walk-out and armed worker resistance in the eventuality of troops taking over pumps. SOC Union members drafted their own wagetable in response to the CPA dictated one and demanded it be accepted on pain of armed, if necessary, strike action at every SOC location. All workers were returned to emergency pay levels immediately and the Unions new wagetable will be implemented next month, as demanded.
The Electricity Sector union is advising, co-operating and co-ordinating with the SOC Union, but, their job is harder due to lack of managerial support. In SOC, the General Director fully supported the Union’s autonomous wage table.
The Governor of Basra took the union’s demands seriously and wrote a secret memo marked ‘urgent’ to the Minister of Energy, advising him to heed the strike threat and to return workers to the emergency payment system ASAP. He urged a fast response and told him formally that if the Ministry does not delay the implementation of the CPA wagetable then there will be a major strike in Basra. The memo ends with ‘Please give this issue the most important consideration’. It was also copied to the Governing Council.
The delegation went on to tell the governor, ‘We are considering the benefit of our country but we are also putting it in our minds the benefit of the workers. We have come to let you know our plans out of respect for you and because you represent Basra people, but if there is no result from our negotiations, we will go on total strike’. Further points include equal pay for women, training and status elevation for women, maternity payment, no nightshift work, and full nursery and childcare facilities to be present in all workplaces.
Asked how the unions will respond if they are forced to take strike action, Samir Hanoon, a negotiator and Vice President of the Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions Basra explained, ‘Us unionists hope that this strike can be conducted safely and by the law. If we cannot win through the legal procedures, if there is no positive result for our demands, we will take actions riots, protests, demonstrations and total shut-downs. We realize that there may be some sacrifices but we are ready to accept these for the sake of our demands. Our real problem now is with the CPA, with Bremer.