Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights – Iraq
Iraqi workers in the public sector are forbidden from forming unions not formally sanctioned and controlled by the state, a regulation remaining from the Saddam Hussein era. A draft labour law remains unfinished. Despite the restrictions, public sector workers, which make up the majority of the workforce, including oil workers, teachers, dockworkers and others have nonetheless formed unions.
In June 2009, US troops began to withdraw, handing over security to Iraqi forces. By the end of 2011, all US troops had left Iraq. In December, an arrest warrant was issued for the Sunni Vice-President Al-Hashemi who was accused of involvement in assassinations and fled to the Kurdish part of Iraq. Violence has continued to steadily reduce but attacks and suicide bombs continue killing civilians, government workers, service workers and journalists.
In February, in an attempt to defuse calls for reform the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that he will not run for a third term in 2014. Al-Maliki, a Shiite, narrowly held onto a second four-year term. The announcement made little difference to demonstrations and the authorities’ response to the protests became increasingly violent.
Political protests: Protests erupted in several Iraqi cities such as Baghdad, Karbala, Kut, Ramadi and Amara throughout 2011. Major protests were held in Tahrir square in Baghdad on 25 February – a “Day of Rage” – in protest at corruption and the lack of basic public services. The Iraqi Teachers Union, the Gas and Oil unions and others participated in this and smaller demonstrations throughout Iraq. State security forces in several provinces used excessive force trying to disperse protestors and police allowed assailants to beat and stab peaceful protesters. Security forces killed at least 12 protesters and injured more than 100. On 8 March, lawyers filed criminal and civil actions against the Interior Ministry’s anti-riot unit for allegedly attacking five reporters covering a demonstration in Basra on 4 March. Three young reporters were arrested on 7 March while covering a demonstration in Tahrir Square. In April, during several different protests, demonstrators and journalists were opened fire on and beaten. In April, as tents were erected and torn down in various cities in Iraq, the authorities issued new regulations barring street protests.
Labour Day on 1 May also saw major demonstrations against corruption, better labour laws, and equal laws for women workers and increased democracy.
On 10 June, following the end of a 100-day cooling-off period requested by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, students and activists attempted to demonstrate in Tahir Square but were met by several thousand pro-government supporters armed with wooden batons. Many protestors were injured and members of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq were also beaten and sexually assaulted. In Kurdistan, the authorities response was similarly violent and perhaps more so.
Throughout the year reports emerged of authorities targeting protest organisers, activists, and journalists, detaining, beating and interrogating organisers in attempts to halt the ongoing series of protests throughout the country.
Trade union rights in law
The current labour laws governing trade union rights are in dire need of reform. A draft Labour Code was made public in 2007, and although it would recognise trade unions, it contains many areas of concern. It would prohibit companies in the oil sector from cooperating with unions, would not adequately protect workers against anti-union discrimination, and would establish too high thresholds for union recognition.
Until the Labour Code is adopted, labour laws dating back to the era of Saddam Hussein remain in force. Resolution 150 of 1987 prohibits public sector workers from organising, and also bars all public sector workers from going on strike. Furthermore, a Ministerial order issued on 20 July 2010 prohibits all trade union activities at the Ministry of Electricity and its departments and sites. Decree 8750, which was introduced by the new regime in August 2005, also severely limits trade union activities by prohibiting unions from holding funds, collecting dues and maintaining assets. The draft Labour Code would allow for collective bargaining.
In April 2010 a decision was taken by the Higher Ministerial Committee to prohibit all travel of trade union delegations participating in any international meetings or conferences unless approved by the Committee.
Only one national centre officially recognised: The only officially recognised trade union is the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), created in September 2005 from the merger of the Iraqi Federation of Workers’ Trade Unions (IFTU) (previously the only one to be officially recognised), the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) and the General Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions (GFITU). However, this limits freedom of association, as organisations such as the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) have been refused recognition.
Most workers banned from union membership: Many workers are deprived of the right to organise due to the predominance of the public sector in Iraq, and the fact that public sector workers are barred from trade unions. Sectors like banking, insurance, oil and others are overwhelmingly state-owned. Even industrial factories are very often state-owned.
Strikes and calls for labour law reform:
In the run up to the national protests on 25 February, trade unions in Iraq conducted strikes and protests to demand a new labour law that gives public-sector trade unions full and universal rights. On 4 January, public employees and civil servants held a protest to uphold labour rights for the hundreds of workers who have been sacked from ministries and agencies in industry, commerce, agriculture, irrigation, and other government departments because of political allegiances.
Oil workers, teachers and textile workers all went on strike during the year over wages, discrimination of Kurdish workers and contract labour. On 29 March, workers at the ministry of industry supported by the national trade union federation (GFIW) organised a day of protest. Protestors demanded the abolishment of longstanding repressive labour legislation and the adoption of new labour laws in addition to reinstating workers dismissed for their political views.
Interference in trade union affairs:
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, governments have failed to put in place a legal and regulatory framework for overseeing trade union activities and continues to use repressive Saddam era regulations which effectively ban independent trade unions.
In 2010, the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, had hinted that Article 150, a law dating back to the 1980s banning public sector workers from joining a union, would be repealed once the country’s electoral stalemate had been resolved. But the new government has instead placed further restrictions on union membership.
On 17 April, the Iraqi Cabinet issued two decrees withdrawing its recognition of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW) and its member trade unions, and instead appointed an unelected “Ministerial Preparatory Committee (MPC)” to take over all union structures and assets and oversee the upcoming trade union elections. These elections exclude public sector workers. The authorities also issued a ruling stating they would select the workers candidate to the ILO Conference in June in contradiction with the ILO constitution which requires member states to select a worker delegate in consultation with unions. After international pressure the Minister of Labour backed down on this plan.
Lack of protection for migrant workers and third party nationals: Although the 2005 Iraqi constitution bans human trafficking, Iraq has no anti-trafficking law that prosecutes offenders. Since 2008, an inter-ministerial task force has been negotiating a draft law for parliamentary approval but no law has been approved. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) issued a report stating alarm at the growing number of foreign migrant workers seeking humanitarian aid and protection after being abandoned by private companies in Baghdad. They estimate that many if not most of the tens of thousands of migrants are undocumented through no fault of their own and are forced to live in unsanitary conditions. As they lack funds to enable them to return to their countries of origin they are vulnerable to exploitation. The organisation is appealing to the government to pressure private companies to take care of their foreign labourers and to introduce a comprehensive labour migration policy. It is also calling for the draft anti-trafficking law IOM has helped to draft to be passed by parliament as soon as possible.
Some 40% of the contracted labour in Iraq is service personnel, mainly from South Asia and Africa. In June, a media report was issued detailing the poor labour conditions of the over 70,000 “third-country nationals” working for the American military in war zones, employed by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES). Many had arrived under false promises and the majority lacked work permits. Many reported being robbed of wages, injured without compensation, subjected to sexual assault, and held in conditions resembling indentured servitude by their subcontractor bosses. Contracts were sub contracted from the US military down to small un-supervised contractors who often procured workers from impoverished countries under conditions amounting to trafficking. Many workers had paid several thousand dollars despite US regulations against the charging of fees and many had contracts stipulating 12 hour days for 7 days a week. Workers who complained were threatened with sacking and denial of return flights home. Several groups of these workers had also been taken hostage and murdered.
In June, it was reported that 30 Sri Lankan construction workers in southern Iraq went on a five-day hunger strike to obtain unpaid wages claiming they had not been paid for the past two years. The move came after threatened suicide. The workers said they were each promised 2,000 dollars per month to work for the Talat Osam al-Deen construction firm, on a government housing project. They said they had not received a single salary payment and the company owners had fled. The Iraqi government intervened, paying the workers 3,000 dollars each and flew them home.
Journalists union raided:
In January, security forces stormed the head office of the Writers Union for the second time in less than two months. The first time the union was raided was in December 2010 under the pretext that the union’s social club sold alcohol, which was perceived by the head of Baghdad’s council as ‘un-Islamic’. However, no reason was given for the second raid on 17 January.
On 17 February, the Writers Union social club was officially reopened by officials despite threats from Baghdad council to close it once more. The Prime Minister’s Representatives said Baghdad Council’s decision to close the social club are unconstitutional According to reports, over 160 violations were committed against media workers in the two weeks after and around the major demonstration on 25 February while a local press freedom group Metro Centre stated that in the spring more than 150 Iraqi Kurdish journalists had been injured or attacked. In September, Al-Mahdi, a radio show host and critic of the government, was shot dead in his home in Baghdad.
Leather workers strike censored: On 1 February, workers at the General Company of Leather Products and Textiles in central Baghdad, one of the Ministry of Industry and Minerals few public owned sites, protested at the company headquarter demanding immediate payment of overdue wages. At the same time workers at the Hilla Textile Factory (south of Baghdad) which employs over 10,000 held a one day strike demanding payment of their overdue salaries. The media was reportedly refused access to cover the strike.
Mechanics and print union leaders arrested and murdered: On 14 February, the Mechanics’ and Printers’ Union of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), held a one day demonstration in Baghdad demanding improvements to their social and working conditions including an end to the rent rises that had forced many into unemployment. On 27 May, Jihad Jalil, 27, a youth leader of the Mechanics’ and Printers’ Union and three others were detained on their way to demonstrate at Tahrir Square.
Oil workers sanctioned for strike action:
Under existing legislation, workers in the public sector, including the state-owned oil companies, are not allowed to form trade unions. Workers that do organise protests are threatened with arrest and relocation. Despite the threats similar worker actions have taken place throughout the main oil producing regions of the south including many protests calling for equal treatment of Iraqi and Kurdish workers and expatriates. The authorities forcibly relocate trade union leaders in the oil industry from their regular jobs in order to remove them from their members and sources of protest.
In June, it was reported that Jamal Abdul-Jabbar Akram, president of the Oil and Gas Workers’ Union of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), had been transferred to another part of the country. This happened after his union staged a February rally outside the headquarters of the state-owned North Oil Company and Jamal refused to cease union activities. In a separate incident, 16 workers were fined nearly USD60, 000 by the Oil Ministry for a March 2010 work stoppage at the Basra refinery. The workers were also transferred from Basra to Baghdad. In Basra, local authorities urged the filing of lawsuits against striking workers.
In May, over 300 Iraqi oil workers staged a wildcat strike in Basra and demonstrated outside the headquarters of the state-owned Southern Oil Company. Their demands included an end to management corruption, and equal pay and treatment with foreigners. However, management used private security officers to confront the demonstrators. At least one worker activist, Sami Hassan, was detained briefly.
Protesting textile workers arrested: Hundreds of workers at al Kut National Textile Company protested on 25 July in front of the provincial council to demand better living conditions and the dismissal of the Director General who they believe is the reason behind the collapse of the al Kut Textile Company, which was one of the profitable national companies in Iraq. Some 75 workers with kidney disease from pollution caused by the factory are also waiting for compensation. Police and army forces were reportedly used against the workers to disperse the protests and some were arrested.
Fertilizer workers denied trade union: Workers at the Northern Fertilizer Company, north of Baghdad, sought to organise a trade union after their company was privatised and working conditions deteriorated. In October however, the company refused to allow them the right to form a union and threatened them with reprisals if they continued to try to exercise their freedom of association. The workers were forced to hold the initial union committee elections at the local offices of the FWCUI.