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The War on Iraq’s Workers


BAGHDAD, IRAQ (10/20/03) — The disaster that is the occupation of Iraq is much more than the suicide bombings and guerilla ambushes of U.S. troops which play nightly across U.S. television screens. The violence of grinding poverty, exacerbated by economic sanctions after the first Gulf War, has been deepened by the latest invasion. Every day the economic policies of the occupying authorities create more hunger among Iraq’s working people, transforming them into a pool of low-wage, semi-employed labor, desperate for jobs at almost any price.

While the effects of U.S. policy on daily life go largely unseen in the U.S. media, anyone walking the streets of Baghdad cannot miss them. Children sleep on the sidewalks. Buildings that once housed many of the city’s four million residents, or the infrastructure that makes life in a modern city possible, like the telephone exchange, remain burned-out ruins months after the occupation started. Rubble fills the broad boulevards which were once the pride of a wealthy country, and the air has become gritty and brown as thousands of vehicles kick the resulting dust into the air.

In the meantime U.S. contractors get rich from the billions of taxpayer dollars supposedly appropriated for reconstruction. Iraq’s national wealth — factories, refineries, mines, docks, and other industrial facilities — are being readied for sale to foreign companies by the occupation’s bureaucracy, to whom democracy and the unrestrained free market are the same thing.

But Iraqi workers, while facing bleak conditions, are not accepting their fate, at least as defined by corporate planners. They are organizing and making plans of their own.

Iraqi workers need a raise – desperately. For six months, they’ve been paid at an emergency level dictated by the US occupation authority, known as the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA. Most workers get $60/month, a small percentage $120, and a tiny minority (mostly administrators and managers) $180. This is the same wage scale that prevailed under the last few years of the Saddam Hussein regime.

One worker at the General State Leather Industry Factory, the largest shoe factory in the Middle East, says she supports six people in her family with the emergency payment. With unemployment still at catastrophic levels, every working Iraqi is supporting many other people at home. As she explains her situation, she’s surrounded by four other seamstresses, each wearing a hejab and worn tan tunic over their clothes. They stand protectively around her while she speaks for all of them. “The prices of food and clothing are going up rapidly, and the salary is very low. We work hard, and I’ve been here 10 years. I have to have a raise,” she pleads.

Another worker at the Al Daura oil refinery just outside Baghdad, complaining anonymously for fear that he would lose his job, told me he’d spent 10 years fighting in the Iran-Iraq war, only to return home to his six children with nothing. “I still have no house or place to live,” he said bitterly, “and the current emergency wage is totally incapable of supporting us.”

In September and October, the refinery saw three work stoppages, in which workers demanded a regular salary, at a level higher than the emergency payments. Leather factory workers even stormed out of their plant, and marched to the Labor Ministry, complaining about their manager and the wages. Similar protests have been happening at workplaces throughout the country.

Those without jobs, estimated at about 70 percent of the workforce, or about 7-8 million people, have even less. Twenty years ago, most people living in Baghdad were supported by regular employment. Today the informal, or black economy, is the means of survival for an enormous part of the population. Since April, the CPA and the Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs have rewritten all the country’s job classifications, and their corresponding salaries, at least three times. But the actual pay received by workers has remained exactly the same. The $87 billion just appropriated by Congress for Iraqi “reconstruction” contains not a dime for workers or the unemployed. Instead, the money will prepare the way for the transformation of the Iraqi economy, and the privatization of the state enterprises at its heart. In the process the Bush administration is not considering measures that would protect and reinforce labor rights. Instead, since April the CPA has essentially banned unions in Iraqi state enterprises, and even issued a decree prohibiting strikes.

In an October 8 phone press conference, Thomas Foley, director for private sector development for the CPA, announced a list of the first state enterprises to be sold off, including cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country’s airline. Foley described his goal as a “fully thriving capitalist economy.” On September 19 the CPA published Order No. 39, which permits 100% foreign ownership of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allows repatriation of profits. No. 37 suspends income and property taxes for the year, and limits taxes on individuals and corporations in the future to 15%.

Dathar Al-Kashab, manager of the Al Daura refinery, predicted that privatization would have an enormous effect. “A worker starting here today has a job for life, under the old system, and there’s no law which permits me to lay him off. But if I put on the hat of privatization, I’ll have to fire 1500 [of the refinery's 3000] workers. In America when a company lays people off, there’s unemployment insurance, and they won’t die from hunger. If I dismiss employees now, I’m killing them and their families.” Al Kashab was formerly the manager of the maintenance department, and still wears his machinist’s overalls as he sits behind the huge desk of the plant director, a position to which he was appointed when the occupation began.

The state-owned Mamoun Factory of Vegetable Oils, which employs 771 workers is another prime candidate for sale to a private owner. “But there’s no private person in Iraq with enough money to buy this place,” said manager Amir Faraj Bhajet. “It would have to be a foreign owner. They would like the assets, but would they want the workers?” Production is low and many of the plant’s injection molding machines, which make plastic bottles for the oil, are disabled. Replacement parts were unavailable during 12 years of sanctions, and the plant was inspected 20 times as a possible site for chemical weapons production, since the PVC used in making bottles has a dual possible use. Iraqi newspapers are already carrying stories on possible buyers.

Despite fear of privatization, however, the fall of the Saddam regime has led to an explosion of workplace organizing activity. Low wages are one motivation, but often working conditions are even more important. At the Al Daura refinery, Detrala Beshab, president of the refinery’s new union, noted that while the workday is officially seven hours, the day shift is actually 11 hours long, and the night shift 13 hours. Since workers are paid by the month, there is no overtime pay. “When we talked to the manager, he told us he had to talk to the Oil Ministry, which had to talk to the Finance Ministry, which had to get permission from the coalition forces,” Beshab said. “The coalition forces control the finances and our wages.” Beshab and the union committee are all older men, at least in their forties. The plant hasn’t hired new workers in some time. Any job in Baghdad right now may be precarious, but it is a means of survival, so workers hang onto them by any means they can. An eleven hour shift is much better than no shift at all.

The workers’ situation is so desperate the refinery gives them motor oil every month to make up for their low income. On the highway outside the plant, the sons of refinery workers have set up little roadside stands selling it to passing cars. In Saddam’s time no one could afford to retire – “the pension wasn’t enough to pay a taxi to collect the check,” Beshab laughs. But the refinery and every other state enterprise did pay other important benefits. There was a system of bonuses and profit-sharing, which often was as much as the salary itself, and a food subsidy as well. All those benefits disappeared when the occupation authorities took over. Workers have suffered a drastic cut in income since April as a result of CPA decisions. A skyrocketing exchange rate (2000 dinars to the dollar in mid-October) has made imports more expensive — in effect, another cut in salary.

No one in the refinery, except the fire department, has boots or gloves. Safety glasses are unknown. “Lots of us have breathing problems, and there are accidents in which people get burned,” explained another union member, Rajid Hassan. If anyone gets hurt or sick, they have to pay for their own medical care, and lose pay for the time they’re out of work.

Two months ago, organizers came out to the plant from one of Iraq’s two new labor federations, the Workers Democratic Trade Union Federation, the modern successor to the country’s pre-Saddam labor movement. Iraq has a long history of labor and radical activity, born during the fight against the British during their 6-year occupation of the country at the end of World War One. Starting with oil, railroad and dock workers, unions mounted strikes, which the British suppressed at gunpoint, killing strikers.

The monarchy that the British installed, lasting until 1958, continued to make union organizing illegal. After the 1958 revolution overthrew the king, unions and radical political parties came aboveground for the first time. But in 1963, the CIA mounted a coup against the Kassem government, and installed the Baath Party. In 1977, Saddam Hussein, who became the Baath Party ruler, purged the unions and made radical parties illegal. Many activists were executed, and others fled Iraq into exile.

Following the fall of the Saddam regime in April, organizers of the old unions resurfaced. In Basra, they mounted a strike two days after the arrival of British troops, demanding the right to organize and protesting the appointment of a Baath Party member as the new mayor. Subsequently, 400 union activists met in Baghdad in June, forming the Workers Democratic Trade Union Federation, and laid plans to reorganize unions in twelve of the country’s main industries. After that meeting, organizers fanned out to workplaces, including the Al Daura refinery. There they encouraged workers in each of the nine departments to elect union committees, and to choose leaders for the entire installation. While the plant manager seemed very willing to talk with the union, he was not able to sign any kind of contract with the federation.

The refinery and all other state enterprises are still covered by the law issued by Saddam on March 11, 1987, which abolished Labour Law No. 151 of 1970, which guaranteed such rights as the 8 hour day. Saddam’s 1987 decree turned workers in the public sector into “civil servants,” thereby denying them the right to form or join unions or to bargain. The pension funds of these workers were handed to the treasury without compensation. At the same time that unions in the public sector were banned, new “unions” were created for the private sector which, according to Law 52 of 1987, would work with management to “increase efficiency and work discipline.”

The 1987 law has a special effect on workers employed in enterprises set to be privatized-if they have no legal union, no right to bargain and no contracts, the privatization of the plants and the huge job losses that will come with it will face much less organized resistance.

On June 5 CPA head Paul Bremer issued a decree, called “Public Incitement to Violence and Disorder.” In a paragraph about “prohibited pronouncements,” section b) list those that “incite civil disorder, rioting or damage to property.” Those who violate the decree “will be subject to immediate detention by CPA security forces and held as a security internee under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 [which governs prisoners of war].” The phrase civil disorder can easily be interpreted as applying to people advocating or organizing strikes.

On an October 13 interview, Dr. Nuri Jafer, assistant to the Iraqi Minister of Labor, was asked whether the 1987 law would be repealed, and refused to answer the question. Sitting next to him in his ornate office was Leslie Findley, a British advisor assigned by the CPA to oversee the ministry. She was asked the same question, and also refused to answer. Then she complained about the number of union delegations visiting the ministry, making the same request. “I’m going to tell the minister that these are taking too much of his time, and recommend that he concentrate instead on doing his job,” she warned. Dr. Jafer spent a half-hour describing in glowing terms his idea for a new system of unemployment benefits, paying, he hoped, a survival income “without removing the motivation from people to go out and find jobs.” Leaving aside the repetition of the free-marketeers’ horror that poor people might lose their desire to work, Dr. Nuri’s explanation had one other major problem. “As yet, unfortunately,” he conceded, “we have yet to find any country willing to help us fund it.”

At the shoe and vegetable oil factories, another new labor group began organizing workers this summer, called the Workers Unions and Councils. With its encouragement, shoe factory workers organized a union and demanded legal recognition. Like workers at the refinery, they complained about long hours without overtime pay, no vacations, and the disappearance of their extra pay when the occupation started. At the factory this reporter was immediately surrounded by dozens of angry workers, each interrupting the other in their urgent efforts to describe their frustration. Dressed in the standard blue overalls of most Iraqi factory workers, they looked as if they had just taken a break from operating their machines. All seemed very willing to speak out within just a few yards of the manager’s office, but hesitated at giving their names. They explained their reluctance by noting that workers whose names wound up on lists maintained by Saddam Hussein security police were fired and blacklisted, or even executed.

“We’re demanding the right to form a union which must have full authority to represent workers here,” explained one worker. “We must change this law that says we don’t have to right to a union. If the law doesn’t change, we’ll change it anyway, like it or not. We are the people.” When an assistant manager listening to the interview began to explain the reason why the factory director couldn’t negotiate, this worker lost his patience and his loud, intense disagreement made the manager retreat back into the office. “Life has gotten much worse,” said another, pointing emphatically into the air. “Everything is controlled by the coalition. We don’t control anything.” Even without legal status, unions are finding a way to operate and win some demands. The vegetable oil factory’s employees tried first to set up a union for the food products industry. The labor ministry then reminded them that they were civil servants, and therefore prohibited from collective bargaining. The workers and the Workers Councils responded by setting up a union for civil servants, defying the ban. The new union’s demands include reclassifying the workers so that they can receive higher salaries, lifting the punishment of banned former employees, and the reinstatement of profit-sharing. According to its general secretary Majeed Sahib Kareem, “a major reason for our existence is to eliminate the laws issued by the Baath regime.” Kareem displayed a long list of workers at the plant who had been arrested and executed during the Saddam Hussein regime for belonging to the Al Daiwa Party, which is now part of the Iraqi Governing Council. The children of these workers were blacklisted and unable to find jobs. Kareem and his union seek to get the government and factory management to make restitution for the old crimes, and correct the harm done to workers’ families.

The WDTUF also condemns the 1987 law and calls for its repeal, but doesn’t organize mass demonstrations against it. “We think civil disobedience is a fertile ground for troublemakers to create havoc and endanger the lives of the people who participate,” said Abdullah Muhsin, the federation’s international representative. Part of the Workers Councils network is the Union of the Unemployed, which for months marched and demonstrated in the streets for survival payments for people who often are starving. On July 29 they set up a tent encampment in front of the compound of the US occupation authorities, and the soldiers detained 21 of the union’s leaders as a result. “The money they spent on just ten combat helicopters would be enough to meet the needs of all the unemployed workers in our country,” charged Qasim Hadi, the union’s general secretary, who has been arrested twice in protests.

In the face of extreme levels of unemployment, the occupation authorities have claimed that the contracts for reconstruction given to US corporations will result in jobs for large numbers of Iraqis. In an August 13 letter to the Union of the Unemployed, William B. Clatanoff, the then-CPA advisor to the Ministry of Labor, boasted that neighborhood councils throughout Baghdad would nominate projects “which will not only offer productive jobs, but also quickly impact neighborhoods in need of overdue improvements.” Anyone driving through the city’s streets in the following two months could easily see the absence of any such public works, however. Enormous piles of rubble from the war remain untouched. Clatanoff promised 300,000 jobs throughout Iraq, none of which have appeared.

Nevertheless, US corporations are actively providing some essential services to the occupation troops, maintaining prison compounds, and rebuilding those parts of the infrastructure, like ports and pipelines, needed to get oil exports restarted. But here the employment of Iraqi nationals is much less desired.

Highly paid technicians are brought in from outside, and housed in compounds surrounded by walls and razor wire, escorted by soldiers. According to the Financial Times of London, contractors preparing meals for troops on their bases use foreign nationals because they don’t trust Iraqis. “Iraqis are a security threat,” said a manager for the Tamimi Company, which provides food service for 60,000 soldiers. Instead, the firm brought in 1800 workers from Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Tamimi in turn is a contractor to US construction giant Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of the Halliburton Corporation. Halliburton’s no-bid contract in Iraq is worth over $2 billion.

Those Iraqis who do get hired to work for the Americans on the bases describe oppressive working conditions. Muiwafa al Saidy, who works for US contractors doing construction at the Baghdad airport, complained that “soldiers aim guns at us wherever we go, even to the toilet.” Workers are paid $5 a day, but have to give $2 of that to a “translator” who threatens to tell the soldiers they’re terrorists unless he gets paid off. They have to pass through three different gates to gain access to the area where they work, and al Saidy described instances in which they were held in a no-man’s land between the gates all day, to punish them for arriving a few minutes late. Adding to the tension are the presence of prisoners in the compound. Al Saidy said he’s seen children brought in from the soccer fields, balls in hand, old men in their 80s, and even hospital patients carrying their drip bags. He described treatment bordering on contempt – food thrown on the ground, blows with sticks, and other forms of disrespect.

In August, a representative of the International Labor Organization, Walid Hamdan, visited Iraq. On his return, he made a report to the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU). Guy Ryder, the ICFTU’s general secretary, called for an international labor delegation to visit Iraq to investigate conditions for workers. “Ensuring respect for workers’ rights, including freedom of association, must be central to building a democratic Iraq and to ensuring sustainable economic and social development,” the ICFTU said in a May 30 statement. “Democracy must have roots. It requires free elections, but also mass based, democratic trade unions that help secure it and protect it as well as being schools of democracy.” Arab trade unionists are also critical of the occupation’s effect on workers.

According to Hacene Djemam, General Secretary of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, “war makes privatization easy: first you destroy the society and then you let the corporations rebuild it.” He emphasized that Iraqi workers must be able to form unions of their own choosing.

Meanwhile, US Labor Against the War, which brought together unions and labor councils that opposed the Bush intervention before it took place, prepared a research paper after the occupation started, profiling the US corporations that were given reconstruction contracts. A USLAW delegation to Iraq in October took copies of the report, and offered to assist unions there if and when they confront the kind of union-busting activity for which some of those companies have become notorious. A British labor delegation also visited Iraq in September.

Labor support in the US for Iraqi unions will focus on the repeal of the 1987 Saddam law prohibiting collective bargaining for state-sector workers, and the removal of other legal barriers on labor activity. The US Labor Assembly for Peace, convened in Chicago on October 24 and 25 by USLAW, announced it was launching a national campaign to defend Iraqi labor rights under the occupation, and resolved to make this an issue in the 2004 election. It called for Congressional hearings into the enforcement of the 1987 law, and began circulating resolutions through unions around the country to build up pressure on Bush and the CPA.

Clarence Thomas, former secretary-treasurer of San Francisco longshore Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, was a member of the USLAW October delegation. He explained to a meeting of WDTUF leaders that his local had opposed the war even before it started, a position backed up by the International union at its convention in June. Jassim Mashkoul, the new federation’s director for internal communications, thanked him for his opposition to the war and occupation. “At the beginning, we thought our situation might be better afterwards, since we got rid of Saddam Hussein. But it hasn’t been.” He cited the occupation authority’s enforcement of the 1987 law as a major obstacle. In addition, he noted, the new federation has asked that the old union structure set up by Saddam Hussein be officially dissolved, and its buildings and the benefit funds it administered turned over to the new unions. The occupation authorities have turned a deaf ear to these appeals as well. Both the WDTUF and the Workers Councils federations opposed the war and call for an end to the occupation. But according to another leader of the federation, Muhsen Mull Ali, who spent two long stints in prison for organizing unions in Basra, “they will reimpose capitalism on us, so our responsibility is to oppose privatization as much as possible, and fight for the welfare of our workers.” “We need Congressional hearings into the union-busting actions by US occupation authorities in Iraq,” Thomas declared. “If unions here knew what’s being done in our name over there, they’d be outraged.”

[David Bacon, Bay Area labor photojournalist, accompanied Clarence Thomas, executive board member of ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco, to Iraq and chronicled their meetings with Iraqi workers, union organizers, and others. Clarence and David are available to speak before labor audiences and others about their experience and observations about the situation for workers in Iraq. David also has a photo show. Contact David Bacon at [email protected] and Clarence Thomas at [email protected] For more information about USLAW contact: http://www.uslaboragainstwar.org/ ]

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