Worker’s Rights in Occupied Iraq

[A speech given to Iraqi unionists at the Occupation Watch Center in Iraq Jan 2, 2004]

Salaam aleikum. Greetings to everybody. As an introduction I’d like to say for myself and on behalf of Occupation Watch, how honoured and privileged I feel to be working with Iraqi workers and the Federation in the struggle for workers rights, empowerment, autonomy and dignity.

My presentation will centre around two key themes: Workers’ salaries and the struggle for labour justice now, with all the obstacles and tools of empowerment involved in it. Labour Justice means fair wages, safe working conditions, the security, health and welfare of the worker coming first, the freedom and safety to organize and elect worker representatives, collective bargaining, and the right to strike.  Labour Justice means the enshrinement of workers rights in law and the respect of those rights by employers and government. To illustrate Labour Justice and the forces of power, privilege and exploitation working against it, I will be using examples of Occupation Administration orders, and the so-called Geneva Conventions of workers rights – the conventions of the International Labour Organization – 66 of which have been ratified by Iraq.

Briefly, the Orders issued by the Occupation Administration and passed unilaterally through the veto of Paul Bremer, acting president of Iraq, are both immoral and illegal. They are based on legalizing the theft of Iraqi resources – labour  – your lives, your time and energy, cheapened even further than they were by the 13 years of genocidal collective punishment sanctions you endured, and natural – despite oil and gas themselves being un-privatised, every aspect of the industrial processes from exploring, extracting, refining, marketing, transporting and exporting, are open to private management. What use is crude oil running through your fingers or natural gas wheezing into the air? The occupation in the process of stealing Iraq and Iraqi lives, resources and futures. Troops will leave but foreign companies will stay – for up to 40 years at a time, and enjoying some of the cheapest labour costs and lowest taxes ever seen by this country, 15% tax and the lowest wage starting at 69,000 ID ($50) per month. You are the people best positioned to fight this process, to strike the Occupation where it really hurts – in its pocketbook, in its financial interests. And from what I have witnessed so far, you are doing an inspiring and hugely admirable job.

Foreign companies are bringing foreign labour and so called experts using the racist myth of Iraqis being backward, 13 years of  industrial degradation through US-UK imposed sanctions and Baath corruption is blamed on the ‘negligence’ of workers, as if Iraqi workers do not care about their workplaces or national services. I’ve met company chiefs who have told me Iraqi workers have ‘no concept of safety’. These myths of Iraqi backwardness, inability, negligence, lazyness and any other old colonisation justifying demonisations are being used to legitimize the longterm presence of foreign companies in Iraq, and are blocking the potential of Iraqi engineers, technicians, workers and inventors, who always know best, from controlling the reconstruction of their own country. But again, I have witnessed workers taking the reconstruction of their workplaces and industries into their own hands, where it belongs, and exploding these racist, western-superiority myths in the process.


According to my meetings with workers in Iraq, the biggest issue affecting their lives is their wages: low wages, late wages and wages manipulated by corrupt accountants and occupation authorities from dollars to dinars according to their own profit motives. Now the dollar is weak, I reckon you’ll all be receiving your next months wages in dollars.

Even a corrected salary table now, as the Occupation Administration views it, does not bring justice in wages. In the 1980s, the wage of a cleaner in Iraq was 300 ID per month or $900 as 1 ID then was worth $3.3. Hyperinflation in the 90s saw the dinar plummet to 4000 against the $1 in 1993. The purchase power of the dinar fluctuated between prohibitively low to almost useless. The regime provided workers with food, family, location, risk, longevity of service payments – all these factors, family size, job risk and food needs and market prices were taken into account. No such provisions or needs have been taken into account by the Occupation Administration. Because they do not care about the living standards, potential, and futures of Iraqi people any more than the dictatorship did, they are here to make sure foreign companies can do business as cheaply as possible.

Bremer’s order on Salary and Employment Conditions of State Employees set the living standards of Iraqi families. Order 30 cancels all ‘special payments’ as they call them or as we know them ‘survival payments’ – housing, food, family, location, service subsidies. Instead, they imposed a 130-position, 10 step, 13 grade wagetable which sets the lowest wage for an Iraqi public sector worker at 69,000 ID per month, less than half of that of a sweatshop worker in one of neighbouring Iran’s  or Jordan’s free trade zones.

According to the occupation Administration scale, a chief engineer with 12 years experience can expect to earn 246,000 ID per month ($120). A chief engineer who has worked for over 30 years gets the same level of pay after 30 years that an administration official would come in on on their first day in a government ministry. Under the old emergency payscale, an engineer on step 4 with five years experience would be getting 342,000 ID or ($160). Under the new payscale, he would be positioned on step 5 on 264,000 ($130), with a cutback of $30 – this is a weeks wages for some and a big difference for a big family.

The Occupation Administration’s wage table does not take into account the purchase power of the dinar or current fluctuating market prices – from rent, gas, oil and petrol, to fruit, vegetables and baby milk – almost everything in Iraq has increased in price since the Occupation began.

Order 30 goes hand in hand with Order 39 on Foreign Investment. Bremer’s order on Foreign Investment is the goal of the war and occupation in writing. It is a historical piece of Illegal legislation. It has been described by economists the world over as ‘A Capitalists Dream’. And it is your nightmare. Such law has never been seen before in history, and if your struggles succeed, it never will be again. 

Order 30 allows for 100% foreign ownership of Iraqi companies and industry. It also slashes the rate of tax for foreign companies from 45% to 15% At a time when Iraq is suffocating from a $200bn debt and 70% unemployment, high taxes on any foreign corporations wishing to invest in Iraq are necessary to service the needs of Iraqi people, and not the profit interests of foreign companies.

The order designed by the Occupation Administration to:
a) Disorganize you                                                            
b) Empower the corrupt Baathist officials recycled into the management of your industries and to aid them in continuing their intimidation and repression against you
c) and to ensure that the process of privatization of public services and industries proceeds without any interference

was Bremer’s Public Notice on Organisation in the Workplace, issued June 6. From the communiquis I’ve seen from various ministries and the talks I’ve had with General Directors, it is being implemented like an order.

This order states that the Occupation Administration ‘respects Iraqi law’ especially Baathist dictatorship law, and that ‘this extends to Iraqi labor laws prescribing the conditions under which employees of government instrumentalities and enterprises continue to work under the CPA’, (that means you are all technically employees of the United States of America. America is your Boss. It goes on to say that ‘ the form of industrial and labor relations ultimately will be a matter for the Iraqi people and the future Iraqi government to decide’. When they say ‘Iraqi people’ they mean the final Iraqi Government. And when they mention Iraqi labor laws, they mean that the 1987 anti-worker, anti-union law still exists and that you, as workers, do not. You can take this neo-Baathist attempt at keeping you down as slaves to the new Occupation regime and throw it back in their faces.  You can take this Notice and interpret it as you like and use it against those who try to hide behind it to refuse to recognize your unions. Your bosses are Iraqi people, you are Iraqi people, and yes, it will be you deciding your futures and that process has already begun and does not rest on the authority of 25 unelected talking heads in Baghdad or the five secret lawyers working behind closed doors, in secret, drafting the labour legislation which will decide the legality of your means and possibilities for struggle. It is down to you. You have decided you are a union and you are  – if your bosses tell you they cannot recognize you because of the Occupiers laws, tell them they can and here are some ILO Conventions which they should remember – still valid if pre-existing labour legislation is still valid and still valid because your fore-fathers fought for them. Challenge them to name the dictatorship law they want to prolong to oppress you with. And then challenge them with the laws you struggled for and the laws you recognize, and that are internationally recognized.

ILO Conventions 98 and 135

Iraq is a signatory to ILO Convention 98 1949 on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining which allows for workers to have representatives, engage in collective bargaining with management and take strike action as well as Convention 135 1971 – The Workers’ Representatives Convention designed to protect trade union representatives, to safeguard them from intimidation and discrimination and allows them to conduct their duties safely. It states:

‘Workers’ representatives in the undertaking shall enjoy effective protection against any act prejudicial to them, including dismissal, based on their status or activities as a workers’ representative or on union membership or participation in union activities, in so far as they act in conformity with existing laws or collective agreements or other jointly agreed arrangements’.

Representatives are defined as:

(a) trade union representatives, namely, representatives designated or elected by trade unions or by members of such unions; or
(b) elected representatives, namely, representatives who are freely elected by the workers of the undertaking in accordance with provisions of national laws or regulations or of collective agreements and whose functions do not include activities which are recognised as the exclusive prerogative of trade unions in the country concerned.

Conventions 98 and 135 can be used most effectively to defend and re-affirm your existence as trade unionists. 

Iraq is also a signatory to the following ILO Conventions:

Convention 100 (1951) on Equal Renumeration – this enshrines the promotion of equal pay for men and women. Discrimination and discrepancies in pay according to gender are forbidden. The issue of equal pay is everybody’s struggle and women workers I met are still suffering from this discrimination in the workplace and not enough is being done to help them. All unions should take up this struggle in solidarity with their sisters to deliver wage justice as soon as possible.

Convention 118 (1962) Equality of Treatment (Social Security Convention) which institutes benefits with regards to any one or all of the following:

a) medical care;
(b) sickness benefit;
(c) maternity benefit;
(d) invalidity benefit;
(e) old-age benefit;
(f) survivors’ benefit;
(g) employment injury benefit;
(h) unemployment benefit; and
(i) family benefit.

Iraq had provisions for all of these in some form except for unemployment benefit.
Not only are you suffering the violation of your rights by foreign powers and companies, supported by the corrupt remains of the Baath dictatorship – which is wide and clear to the international community of workers and social justice activists, who stand in solidarity with you, but the process by which your futures and struggles can be framed and decided in the future, the forming of Iraqi labour legislation, is being kept a total secret from you and all your participation shut out from it. Only pressure on and exposure of this will ensure your voices will be heard in the struggle to form your own labour legislation and ensure your rights and the rights which those before you fought for, are protected and respected. 
So with that, I thank you for listening to me, I thankyou for the amazing and courageous work you are doing, fighting against so many enemies, the Baathists still holding their seats of power, and the representatives of the most experienced ruling class in Europe – the British Occupation – and the architects of the current world economic and military order, soon to fall, inshallah, the American Government. You are many, you are not alone and your struggle is connected to a thousand carrying on simultaneously all over the world, but only you are facing directly the worlds only superpower reconfiguring your national economy, laws and living standards, and attempting to redraw the economic map in the middle east staring from your own. You have much support and solidarity. You are not alone in your struggle. My struggle is your struggle and that’s why I’m here.

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