The premises of the local federation of trade union organizations in Basra are located in a side street in the centre of the southern Iraqi city. A few meters away there’s a local fire station. And, as some local wits have been heard to say recently, it’s a good thing the fire engines are there. Because soon they may be needed to put out the raging fire caused by hostilities between the trade unionists and the state authorities.
According to their website the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW) “is the main national trade union centre in Iraq. It brings together workers, regardless of gender, age religion and ethnicity, in pursuit of commons aims of a free and democratic Iraq”.
The current scrap was sparked off in May this year when the executive of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers in Basra was dissolved. A new executive needed to be elected and Iraq’s Ministry of Labour set up a preparatory committee to organize the elections.
As four trade union organizations in Basra, including the GFIW, put it in a press release, this committee is made up of a group of individuals with “no trade union affiliations” who are “hatching a conspiracy” with the aim of holding “sham elections”.
According to the national arm of the GFIW, it’s is all about ongoing government interference in trade union affairs and harassment of unionists, with a growing emphasis on religious matters – all of which the trade unionists object to.
Historically, attempts to form trade unions in Iraq date back to the beginning of the last century. Under the dictatorial Saddam Hussein, unions lost much ground and in 1987, the Hussein regime came up with Resolution 150 which prohibited public sector workers from organizing themselves into unions or from going on strike. Because Iraq’s economy was almost completely funded by oil incomes, with the government the main paymaster, this legislation was particularly significant – nearly everybody works for the government.
In 2007, a new set of labour laws was drafted but due to a number of significant concerns with it, it has never been ratified. Which means, that, in reality, labour laws still hark back to the 1987 code; it also means that any unions comprised of public employees are – legally speaking – not recognized.
And currently part of the problem comes down to the fact that labour laws in Iraq still remain fairly specious, or at the very least, vague and undefined.
In an update from 2008, the US-based organization, the Solidarity Centre, funded by American trade union groups to assist “workers around the world who are struggling to build democratic and independent trade unions”, reported further on the lack of labour laws in the country.
“In January 2008, the Iraqi government announced its intent to unilaterally impose a union election process in the country. The government cited Governing Council Decree No. 3 of 2004 as a basis for its order. Decree No. 3 attempted to dissolve newly-forming trade union federations in Iraq, and placed the process of establishing new legally sanctioned unions under the auspices of the Iraqi government,” the Solidarity Centre wrote. “In May 2008, the Council of Ministers formed a committee to oversee union elections countrywide.”
The committee included representatives of various government ministries and nobody from the trade unions themselves.
“The proposed elections exclude all union organizations with the exception of a single federation. This implies that all union elections undertaken by any other federation or unions will be illegal. The decree also only permits the private, mixed and cooperative sectors to organize unions, excluding the majority of the Iraqi workforce working in the vast public sector from exercising the right of freedom of association. The entire process is a flagrant violation of the fundamental rights of freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively,” the Solidarity Centre concluded.
The unions have tried to fight this by filing lawsuits against the Governing Council Decree No. 3 of 2004.
“The legitimacy of this [electoral] committee was challenged by Iraq’s highest court in 2006,” Hadi Ali Lafta, vice president of the GFIW, notes. “Despite that, the committee continues to exist.”
And during the first meeting of said committee in Basra, “there were attempts to bypass the organisation’s bylaws,” Hussein Fadel, head of the GFIW in Basra, says.
Several other Basra trade union organizations – including the Basra branch of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions and the Union of Engineering Professionals in Southern Electricity Sector – came out in support of the GFIW in Basra and a demonstration was held.
“We participated in the demonstrations in solidarity with the Federation and against the government conspiracy, which is being backed by a religious party,” Ali Abbas Khafeef, vice president of the Basra FWCUI, the second largest union federation in Iraq, says – Khafeef was referring to the Sadrist movement, a mainly Shiite Muslim group led by the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Minister of Labour, Nassar al-Rubayie, is a member of the Sadrist movement.
“It is not true that the Sadrists are trying to dominate labour unions in Iraq,” Ali Hussein, a provincial politician and member of the Sadrist movement, argued. “The committee supervising the union elections is composed of members of all the political parties in Iraq. If any one party is dominating actions within the province, then this is because it has a large support base and is particularly popular in that province.”
So what is the solution? Earlier the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, the body that represents a number of Arab nations’ unions, on a global basis, called upon the Iraqi government to hold off on the formation of trade union executives until the nation had come to a common vision for workers’ groups.
But this could be more difficult than it sounds. Despite the fact that Article 22 of Iraq’s Constitution guarantees citizens “the right to form and join unions and professional associations” it seems that the political will is hardly there.
Local legal expert and council member, Tariq al-Abarseem, agrees that new legislation is needed when it comes to labour activism and trade unions. But he also thinks that the Iraqi government and most Iraqi political parties are afraid of working on these kinds of laws.
“Free trade unions would create an influential voice for public opinions in this country,” he said. “And that is something that frightens both the government and the existing unions.”