[Marxism] The Occupation's War on Iraqi Workers (from Portside)
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Wed Nov 26 17:00:26 MST 2003
The Occupation's War On Iraqi Workers
By David Bacon - Submitted to portside
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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."
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
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 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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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 dbacon at igc.org and Clarence
Thomas at deeclarenc at aol.com.
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