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in iraqi kurdistan, workers pay for boom town with their lives

Sangar Jamal
While many locals are celebrating the building boom in Iraqi Kurdistan, there are also casualties. The number of deaths on construction sites has doubled over the past year and workers say that they’re paying…
5.12.2013  |  Sulaymaniyah
Iraqi Kurdistan\'s boom has drawn more workers into the region.
Iraqi Kurdistan\'s boom has drawn more workers into the region.

Mustafa Ali was working on a construction site in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah when he was asked to move a large piece of material that would be part of the electrical system of the building he was working on.

“It weighed more than a ton,” says his son, Azad. “And even together with two other men, it was too heavy to carry. The plate then fell on my father and he died,” he explains. “It is a tragedy, his place is empty. And now that he is gone, I have to be the man of our family – I will not be able to finish my education.”

Unfortunately Mustafa Ali, who was 57 when he died, is not the only construction worker to suffer death and injury on one of the many construction sites in the booming region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The semi-autonomous area has its own military, parliament and legal system and, compared to the rest of Iraq at the moment, is secure and stable. This, and the fact that the region has an oil industry, has made cities like Sulaymaniyah and the capital, Erbil, a magnet for foreign firms wanting to do business in Iraq. As a result business is booming and there is a lot of construction work in the region that is drawing workers from outside the region who want to earn a better living. At the same time though, the number of workplace deaths is rising. This year there are reports that 62 workers died while on the job in Iraqi Kurdistan – more than twice the number that died at work here in 2012.

“These numbers indicate a very serious development and the situation needs to be addressed,” Othman Zindani, the head of the local construction workers union, told NIQASH. He had just heard of four more deaths and said that brought his total this year to 62 fatalities on the job. Many believe that official figures are far lower than the reality.

“These people are just trying to make a living,” Zindani complains. “And the government is not even following up on this. Even the general prosecutor isn’t doing anything and this is an issue that relates to thousands of people’s lives.”

There are also disabilities and other injuries to worry about. “Every day we hear news about injuries and even deaths,” says Sadar Namiq, 46, a construction site worker who’s currently employed on one of the bigger sites in Sulaymaniyah. This means long term work for him and he is pleased that he and his colleagues no longer need to queue up where the construction workers tout for jobs, to see if they have employment that day. But on the other hand, Namiq keeps worrying about what would happen to his family if something goes wrong. “We hear about people who have lost body parts or been in accidents. And we’re never sure: Maybe the same thing will happen to us?”

Obviously there will always be accidents. But a lot of the workers’ advocacy organizations believe there are more than there should be because nobody pays attention to safety standards on the sites – neither the construction companies nor the authorities that should enforce the safety rules.

“There are three reasons for the increase in injuries and deaths,’” Raheel Faridoun, head of a newly formed occupational health and safety organization, explained. “A lack of respect for safety rules, the government not holding those who infringe safety rules accountable - and part of the responsibility must also be laid at the feet of the workers. They don’t abide by accepted safety guidelines and they don’t utilize what protective measures there are.”

As a result his organization is preparing a set of guidelines that he hopes the Iraqi Kurdish authorities will endorse and make legally binding.

At the local Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs, senior official Arif Hayto, says his office doesn’t deny that there’s been an increase in worker injuries. However he also noted that the number of injured workers who had registered their disabilities with his office only totalled 19 – all of these would receive a pension, according to local legislation.

“Labour law has been amended in the interests of the workers,” Hayto explains. “So that they can get assistance from social security in cases of injury or death. We are also working on this and following two kinds of action up. We’re looking at workers’ rights and we are also supervising workplaces and projects using special committees. If an employer is found not to be abiding by safety laws, then they will be forced to pay fines and they may face prosecution.”

Recently Asus Najib, Hayto’s boss and the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan, announced that several companies were being taken to court for exactly this reason. And Hayto says that plans for next year include more training in occupational health and safety.

Still many in the field do not believe the Iraqi Kurdish government is doing enough. “The low number of inspectors from the Ministry and the absence of any respect for legislation means that the number of companies liable to be prosecuted is actually a lot smaller than the number who are breaking laws and endangering lives,” Zindani says.

In fact, at least one Iraqi Kurdish MP believes local laws cater to businesses in Iraqi Kurdistan rather than their workers. “How many companies were forced to stop work over the deaths of workers? How many were blacklisted?” MP Shirko Hama Amin asked in an interview with NIQASH. “the measures being taken against these companies are negligible. Nothing’s really been held against them. And that’s the real reason why this carelessness will just continue.”

As for the family of deceased construction site worker, Mustafa Ali, they continue to grieve as well as to try and get some justice for their father. Son Azad continues to fear for his own safety – he too works in construction now.

“I’m not the only one who feels like this,” Azad told NIQASH. “All of those workers who have nothing but their jobs are afraid of this fate. I’m afraid to die like my father and I’m afraid that whoever I leave behind will be treated the same way as we have been treated.”