Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Trade Unions In Iraq

To meet their word limit, I have sent an edited version of the following as a submission to the Iraq Commission. It deals entirely with the issue of Iraqi Trade Unionism. I had earlier promised a response to Duncan on criticisms he raised about aspects of my views the Iraqi Trade Union Movement. I hope that he will accept the submission as covering an update of my views on this subject.

Scope of the submission

1. This submission is restricted to two key aspects of your Commissions remit. These are (a) your interest in “the political and economic situation in Iraq” and (b) your concern for the “long term support for Iraq (in assisting)….democracy and civil society”. These matters are, of course, central to your Commmisions interests and are of overwhelming importance for the future well-being of Iraq.

2. Whilst Iraq is going through a terrible period of violent divisions on ethic, tribal, religious and other sectarian grounds; it also contains social forces which seek to unify people across these diverse and separate interests.

3. Groupings which seek to integrate, rather than divide people include women’s groups, student bodies and interest groups seeking improvements in medical services, welfare provisions, education and various other communal facilities. There is also a deal of inter-marriage and communal connections in areas of Iraq between those whom others seek to divide, including amongst Sunni and Shia.

4. I wish to concentrate on the impact and unifying influence of the organisations I have personal links with - the Iraqi Trade Union Movement. In sections 5 to 10 below, I will establish what these links are.

My Links

5. My connection with the Iraqi Trade Union Movement arose from a question I raised in the Commons soon after the initial Coalition invasion of Iraq, when I asked a Parliamentary Question about the role the Iraqi Labour Movement would play in the reconstruction of their country (see Hansard, 3 April 2003, column 1090/1).

6. I have since met with a wide range of Iraqi Trade Union Leaders in the Commons (first as an MP, then at meetings following my retirement in 2005), at the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and on a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2006. The latter involved a key meeting with Iraqi Trade Unionists from Basra, Baghdad and other areas outside of Iraqi Kurdistan. They flew in to Arbil to meet with the group I was with.

7. The visit to Iraqi Kurdistan was with Labour Friends of Iraq and with British Trade Unionists. Amongst those we met were Najim Abd-Jasem the general Secretary of the Mechanics, Printers and Metalworkers Union who was recently assassinated in Baghdad because of his Trade Union work.

8. I am proud to be an honouary member of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), which as early as January 2004 was recognised by the then Iraqi Governing Council as being “the legitimate legal representatives of the labour movement in Iraq”. It was established as a federation of 13 Trade Unions operating in each major sector of the economy.

9. As an MP I had the honour of chairing a meeting in the Commons which was addressed by Hadi Saleh, the International Secretary of the IFTU who was a major figure in establishing the above structure and in gaining the movement’s international Trade Union recognition. He was brutally murdered in Baghdad because of these activities in 2005.

10. A major person through whom my above links have been established is Abdullah Muhsin. He initially was international representative of the IFTU, a post he now holds with the wider body known as the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW). He is based in this country. It would be fruitful for the Commission to seek to draw from his expertise. Along with the academic, Alan Johnson (whom you are to interview) Abdullah produced the key TUC publication on this topic - “Hadi Never Died: Hadi Saleh and the Iraqi Trade Unions” (TUC, 2006). I recommend this book to the Commission for its examination.

Trade Unions in Iraqi Kurdistan

11. In sections 11 to 22, I will seek to give an indication of the scope, strength and potential of the Iraqi Trade Union Movement in Iraqi Kurdistan, before moving on to the more complex situation in the rest of Iraq. Whilst the conditions for Trade Union development are more favourable in Iraqi Kurdistan, it should be noted that they have solid links with their counterparts in the rest of Iraq whom they see as sister organisations.

12. Trade Unions have been able to operate openly in Iraqi Kurdistan as a result of the establishment of the northern no-fly zone in the region in 1991. They operate in relatively favourable circumstances and are generally free from (and protected against) terrorist attacks. They also enjoy close links with the major governing political parties. In the Arbil area the connection is with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and in the Sulaimaniyah district it is with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. (PUK). These arrangements have involved some officials moving in and out of Trade Union, Parliamentary and Governmental positions. The only problem is whether this relationship is too close.

13. The Iraqi Kurdistan economy has the characteristics of a command economy, but even the Kurdistan Communist Party (KCP) are aware of the need to open up the economy for the purposes of inward investment. It is a matter the Regional Government is focused upon.

14. The region suffers from less unemployment than is the case for the rest of Iraq. Even so , the official unemployment rate is currently 28%. Perhaps half of the rate for the rest of Iraq. However, the region suffers from large elements of under-employment. For instance, we visited a cigarette factory employing 600 people which had produced nothing for four years due to the state of its machinery. The workers were fully unionised and had to attend the factory full-time in order to receive their minimal earnings.

15. Yet Iraqi Kurdistan has growing areas in its economy. There is a building boom covering private housing, rented flats, council houses, university student’s accommodation and public facilities. Road building, a hydro-electric project and plans for leisure provisions are to the fore. Cement factories proliferate.

16. It is not, of course, an area free from economic problems. In an oil producing nation, there are serious petrol shortages. Petrol is smuggled in over its mountains, especially from Iran. It is then sold on from containers in open roadside black markets at inflated rates.

17. The major Trade union federation in Iraqi Kurdistan is the Kurdistan Workers Syndicate (KWS) who claim a membership of 200,000. Given the numbers of Trade Unionists we met throughout the region, the number and size of their facilities and the links they set up for us with businesses and Government Ministers, this number seems highly plausible.

18. The KWS have close fraternal links with the Kurdistan Teacher’s Union, who cover everyone involved in education including those at University. It claims a membership of 100,000 and was prominent throughout our visit, including participating at our meeting with (and alongside) the Arbil Minister of Education.

19. We also met with a group described as Civic Society Organisations, who turned out to be Trade Unions for professional groups. These included Professional Engineers (2,000 members), Economists, Artists (15,000),Qualified Engineers, Health Professionals (9,750) , Agronomists and a Lawyers and Barristers Group (5,000). The major interest these groups expressed to us were (a) the need to have fraternal links with equivalent bodies in the rest of Iraq (although no equivalent existed in Baghdad for the Lawyers and the Qualified Engineers) and (b) in the meantime as these avenues were blocked due to disruption in Baghdad in particular, they need to develop such links with bodies outside of Iraq.

20. In all, Iraqi Kurdistan appears to have a vibrant and influential Trade Union Movement of at least 350,000 members. It cater for all the major elements of the local population, including Assyrians, Armenians, Turcomans, Chaldeans, Arabs and both Sunni and Shia Kurds.

21. The latest total population figure supplied by the Kurdistan Regional Government (covering Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk) is 3,757,058. The region has a young population, with a median age of 20. As the unemployment level is 28% and there is a large self-employed population in agricultural areas, with many women not seeking to enter the labour market; it is quite feasible that the density of trade union membership amongst the employed workforce is greater than the British figure of 29.1%.

22. In circumstances where there is a desperate need to have bodies in society which seek to nurture and hold-together the social bond, press for freedoms to act on behalf of their members’ combined interests and display their need to find their place in an open and democratic society; then the Iraqi Kurdistan Trade Union Movement needs our support and help. If it is argued that Trade Unions can display divisive and sectional interests, then it needs to be appreciated that this is much less likely to be a factor when they are in conditions where they are seeking to struggle against these very factors.

Trade Unions in the rest of Iraq

23. In sections 23 to 34, I will cover the more complex pattern of Trade Unionism which exists outside of the Iraqi Kurdistan area. It is not, however, an area I have visited since I undertook my National Service in Iraq in 1955-6. But I have discussed the current situation with a large number of its Trade Union leadership.

24. There is a strong pattern of Trade Union activity which pre-dates its suppression under Saddam Hussein’s regime. In 1959, no less than half a million people participated in a May Day demonstration in Baghdad out of a total Iraqi population of under seven million. The development of the railways, ports, factories and the oil industry had moved Iraq towards a greater urbanisation which stimulated a Labour and Trade Union Movement which was led at that time by the Iraqi Communist Party. The 1959 demonstration being called and led by the dominant Trade Federation of that time - the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU).

25. In 1987 Saddam Hussein banned the operation of Trade Unions in the dominant public sector and took over the remnants of the GFTU, putting Chemical Ali in charge of its operations and using its structure for abusive purposes. Unfortunately, Law 150 which banned Trade Unions from operating in the public sector has never been repealed for the bulk of Iraq. Using its federal powers under the Iraqi Constitution, the measure has, however, been cleared from the statute books in Iraqi Kurdistan.

26. Whilst Saddam’s Law does not function in the same way as it did under the dictator’s regime, it places considerable blocks upon the operations of Trade Unions. Employers can (and do) turn to the Courts to inhibit Trade Union operations. Whilst State power is used against Trade Union industrial action, as in the Basra Oil Industry at the moment - see section 33. The international Trade Union Movement and internal Iraqi Unions regularly press for the repeal of Law 150, which is in conflict with the provisions of the Iraqi Constitution which guarantees the rights of free Trade Unions.

27. As a consequence of Saddam Hussein’s persecution of Trade Unionists and their political allies in the Communist Party, many of those who weren’t imprisoned or executed went into exile or operated in a clandestine way until they finally grabbed the opening provided by the Coalition’s invasion.

28. Immediately on the heels of the invasion which the above Trade Unionists had been opposed to, they moved openly to re-group. Despite American troops initially taking over the IFTU offices in Baghdad and arresting numbers of its officials, the growth of Trade Unionism was dramatic. The 13 Trade unions affiliated to the newly formed IFTU soon claimed 200,000 members. The Iraqi Teachers Union catering for all from schools to Universities, claimed an even larger membership. Other independent Trade Unions and a Union for the unemployed were established.
The post Saddam GFTU and a splinter group entitled the General Federation of Iraqi Trade unions (GFITU) were also operative. For a period, the combined Iraqi and Kurdistan Trade Union Movements seemed to be covering a million members in a nation with massive unemployment, extreme poverty, disruption and internal conflict.

29. In order to gain affiliation to the Arab Federation of Trade Unions. The IFTU, the GNITU and the post Saddam GFTU merged to set up the General Federation of Iraqi Workers in December 2005. Abdullah Muhsin whom I mentioned in section 10 is their International Secretary. The IFTU forms their largest element.

30. Following an earlier flowering of their activities, Iraqi Trade Unions have faced numbers of stumbling blocks. In August 2005 the transitional Government passed Decree 8750 under which the Government sequestrates Trade union funds, pending its proposed decision to determine who it recognises as being legitimate Trade Unions. It has left the Trade Union Movement in limbo by never getting round to making such a decision. Whilst Decree 8750 as with Law 150 is, of course, in conflict with the Iraqi Constitutions commitment to free Trade Unions.

31. The practical consequences of the sequestration of funds is probably even more serious than the continued operation of Law 150. Although the two measures being run alongside each other form a massive restraint on Trade Union activity. Without financial resources, Trade unions have to depend upon voluntary help and are without proper office facilities. Again the international Trade Union Movement regularly protests to the Iraqi Government about Decree 8750 as it knows any funds it supplies to the Iraqi Trade union Movement will be taken over by the Iraqi Government.

32. Growing terrorism effects Trade Unionism in many ways. It disrupts economic activity and divides people into separate communities (cutting numbers away from their jobs). Trade Unionists and their officials are widely targeted and murdered. Trade Unionists are also kidnapped and executed both in their role as workers and specially for their Trade Union activities. Continuing economic disruption restricts job opportunities and helps create (at best) temporary and casual work.

33. Yet whilst State, terrorist and economic pressures hit Trade Unionism, the efforts made in advancing Trade union interests are still considerable. Currently, the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU) are in dispute with their employers in Basra after protected negotiations to improve wages and conditions for their members. Iraqi Armed Forces have been sent in to break the strike, using Law 150. The American Trade Union Federation (the AFL-CIO) and the TUC are amongst those who are protesting strongly about the Iraqi Government’s actions. The IFOU is an independent Trade Union, but it has the support of the GFIW in its struggle.

34. Industrial action is only the more dramatic sign of Trade union activity. Yet in the past two months we have also seen strikes by the Teacher’s Union in Basra, by railway workers across Iraq (including Kirkuk), by rubber plant workers in Diwaniyah, by workers at four factories in Baghdad and by postal workers in Kut Wasit. Journalists also called for a week of protest in Maysan over the assassination of a colleague. The combination of this pattern, indicates that Trade Unionism is a strong force in Iraq, which can not easily be sidelined.

The political wing of Trade Unionism

35. When the earlier Iraqi Trade Union Movement reached its peak in 1959 with the mass demonstration I described in section 24, it was closely linked in with the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) which was a body which pressed for a Western-style “bourgeois” democracy, so that it could find its way into the political nation .

36. Although the ICP and its Kurdish equivalent have a small number of seats in the Iraqi Parliament and they can now be viewed as being left-wing Democratic Socialist Parties, they can not now be seen as being in a position to act as the political expression of the wider Trade Union Movement. The ICP has, however, recently held a 4 day Congress in Baghdad with 250 delegates and observers. Whilst they also ran celebrations on their 73rd anniversary, claiming that 10,000 people attended a celebration at the International People’s Stadium in Baghdad on 31 March. This and related claims seem to be verified by photographic evidence .Guest speakers included representatives of the Iraqi President and of the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament. Several related events were held in Sulaimanya, Hiila, Kut, Karbala, Najaf and Halabja, with 2,000 at the events in Nasseriyah.

37. The activities of the IPC and the KCP do not, of course, mean that the Communists are about to achieve a political break-through in a nation dominated by the divisions I have stressed. There are, however, indications that counter-cultures exist to those we find so worrying. Whilst this might not be reflected in the ballot box (even amongst the bulk of Trade Unionists) it provides signs that a class based politics can make advances in competition with the current dominant forces.

What can we do?

38. I have attempted to show the size, importance and persistence of the Trade Union Movement in Iraq. I see it as part of a countervailing force against Iraq’s divisive elements. It sees its own interests as best being served in a democratic society which activates a wide area of civil liberties.

39. When the Commission makes its recommendations, I hope that it will incorporate this understanding into its analysis. The key question is how the Iraqi Trade Union Movement can be encouraged down the path I have indicated and how we can assist it in such efforts.

40. There is, in fact, a great deal of moral and practical support which is provided by the International Trade Union Movement to its Iraqi equivalents. Unfortunately, this work is largely ignored by the major avenues of the media in this country and elsewhere. A strong recommendation by your Commission that the media should focus its attention on this good news, would be helpful.

41. In Britain the TUC runs an Iraqi Solidarity Committee and an “Aid Iraq Appeal”
which has sponsored a major project assisting Iraqi Journalists in establishing free Trade Unions. As monies the TUC might supply to the Iraqi Trade Unions outside of Iraqi Kurdistan would now be confiscated, it has a scheme to collect used mobile phones with their chargers for use on Iraqi Trade Union business. The Fire Brigade Union ( FBU) sent 600 kits of boots, leggings and tunics to their equivalent organisation in Basra, when they saw fire-fighters’ needs. Recently FBU members drove two fire engines to Baghdad for use by the capital’s fire-fighters. UNISON funds Trade Union Training Courses in Iraq. Our group visited one of these in Arbil and met the co-ordinator who runs the national scheme. As a former tutor on Trade Union Courses, I was impressed with what I saw. The NUJ, RMT, PCS and GMB are amongst other Trade Unions providing support. Whilst Iraqi Trade Unionists regularly attend Trade Union Education Courses, Conferences and Rallies in this country. There are close links between the Teacher’s Unions in Iraq and our equivalents such as the NAS/UWT. The Iraqi Trade union Movement also has a regular presence at world-wide Trade Union Conferences, recognition by the Arab Federation of Trade Unions and close contacts with the International Labour Office and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

42. The British Government makes a wide range of sympathetic responses when questioned on the role of Trade Unions in Iraq. I elicited a good number of these from Ministers and the Prime Minister when I was an MP. Dave Anderson MP first elected in 2005, succeeded me as a Joint President of Labour Friends of Iraq and has since carried on this practice. Tony Blair as Prime Minister also hosted a reception at 10 Downing Street for the launch of the TUC’s book on Iraq (see section 10). It is much more difficult, however, to assess how these expressions and signs of sympathy work out in practice. The government are, of course, restricted in relation to open representations and other pressures they can place upon the Iraqi Government, as this might be viewed as interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation. Although some would argue that they act more clearly for commercial interests. Your Commission’s encouragement to the Government to do what it can to aid Iraqi Trade Unionism would be welcome, especially if this can be attached to the supply of hard evidence about its achievements. A main objective is the repeal of Law 150 and Decree 8750 as described earlier.

43. Much ,however, needs to be achieved outside of formal Government avenues, beyond the ranks of the dedicated few. A better understanding of the Iraqi Trade Union situation by the general public would be helpful. More of those who see themselves as being part of the wider Trade Union and Labour Movement could (in particular) provide much-needed moral and practical support to the Iraqi Trade Union movement. The Commissions efforts in stimulating such interests would be welcome.

44. I have concentrated on the area I understand the best - Iraqi Trade Unions. I am convinced that similar considerations apply to Women’s Groups, Student Organisations and hosts of other interests Groups such as the one we met in Iraqi Kurdistan who organised as a Dwarf’s Group from those effected by Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks upon their parents.


John Gray said...

Good stuff Harry - spot on

Harry Barnes said...

Thanks John. For Labour Party and Trade Union meetings on Iraq - have speech, will travel.