In February employees of South Oil, the national petroleum company responsible for oil in Iraq\'s southern states, stopped work and demonstrated in front of the firm\'s headquarters. The workers demanded payment of withheld benefits, the right to housing, better contracts and an end to corruption in the company. The protests started in February and in April around 1,000 workers even stormed the company headquarters in Basra.
And recently the oil workers returned to the streets of Basra to continue their fight. The latest protests started because one of the protest leaders, Alaa Abdul-Rida, was transferred to another location.
To defuse the crisis, local government had formed a committee that included two local MPs, to negotiate some kind of settlement. “But even while negotiations were going on between the committee and the Ministry of Oil [South Oil\'s parent company], we were surprised to find out that Abdul-Rida had been transferred to another oil field, without a new title or any financial compensation,” explains Abdul Karim al-Sada, another of the protest leaders. “It seemed that the transfer was a punishment.”
But al-Sada felt that those tactics wouldn\'t have any effect on the protesters. “During previous protests, eight of the protest leaders were detained – myself included. But pressure from the other protesters meant that the case was dropped,” he says. “After all, we are demonstrating peacefully and we don\'t have any intention to stop oil production.”
The oil company has previously said it is prepared to meet the workers\' demands. In fact, it was already saying that early in 2013. But as al-Sada confirmed, the issue of housing and the issue of company dividends is yet to be resolved. The workers also want improved conditions at work and that a trade union be introduced.
At a press conference, the head of South Oil, Dia Jaafar, said some of the workers\' demands were luxuries but that others were important and immediate. “However,” he added, “some of these are not within my control. But the Minister [of Oil] understands these demands and he\'s working on making them a reality.”
In Iraq, salaries paid to oil sector employees and locals working in the electricity sector are higher than any other industry, mainly because there are incentives available that cannot be obtained in other areas. The demonstrating oil sector workers counter this by saying they often work in extreme conditions in hot and remote places, where security is a grave concern.
Nasser Majeed Hassan, a former member of the South Oil trade union between 2003 and 2007, says that many of the current problems causing the protests are the fault of former oil minister, Hussein al-Shahristani, when he banned the oil workers\' trade unions.
“We formed trade unions under very difficult conditions in 2003,” Hassan notes. “We were visiting the sites, even in remote areas and at great danger, so that we could check out working conditions and to identify corruption there. But high ranking officials fought us all the way.”
The oil workers also say they believe that the rest of Iraq should listen to what they have to say because it is about how national oil incomes are distributed; these methods of distribution affect everyone in the country, because that\'s where nearly all of Iraq\'s income comes from.