The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] Saddam's Labor Laws Live On

[ Presenting plain-text part of multi-format email ] The Progressive. December 2003

Saddam's Labor Laws Live On

by David Bacon

Most Iraqi workers hoped the fall of Saddam Hussein would liberate them,
enabling them to recover their lost rights. Chief among them was the right
to an independent union. In 1987, the regime of Saddam Hussein reclassified
most Iraqi workers--those who labored in the huge state enterprises that are
the heart of the country's economy--as civil servants. As such, they were
prohibited from forming unions and bargaining.

The occupation, however, didn't lift this decree. It is still in force, as
privatization looms like a sword of Damocles over those workers and the
factories on which they depend for survival. And while keeping in place the
ban on unions, the occupation authorities have kept wages low and
unemployment high.

For Iraqi workers, the signal could not be clearer: The overthrow of Saddam
did not bring liberation.

Iraq has a long history of labor and radical activity, born in the fight
against Britain's six-year occupation at the end of World War I. Starting
with oil, railroad, and dock workers, unions mounted strike after strike,
which the British suppressed at gunpoint, often killing strikers. The
monarchy the British installed, lasting until 1958, continued to make union
organizing illegal. After the 1958 revolution, unions and radical political
parties were able to come above ground for the first time. But in 1963, the
CIA helped mount a coup against the Kassem government, and the Ba'ath Party
took over. In 1977, Saddam Hussein purged the unions and made radical
parties illegal again. Many labor activists were executed, and others fled
into exile.

Following the fall of the Saddam regime in April, organizers of the
independent 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 Ba'ath Party member as the new mayor. In
June, 400 union activists met in Baghdad, forming the Workers Democratic
Trade Union Federation. The group 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 oil refinery, located just outside Baghdad. 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
willing to talk with the union, he was not able to sign any kind of contract
with the federation. The refinery and all other state enterprises are still
covered by the law issued by Saddam in 1987.

Since the arrival of troops in April, unions and workers have been demanding
that the occupation authorities repudiate this law, as they have with many
others issued under the Saddam regime. The occupation authorities in this
case, however, have been silent. In the absence of a new order repealing the
old decree, it remains in force, prohibiting any form of collective
bargaining for most Iraqi workers. In particular, it affects those workers
who are employed in enterprises set to be privatized. If those workers 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 be much
more difficult to oppose.

"At the beginning, we thought our situation might get better after we got
rid of Saddam. But it hasn't," says Jassim Mashkoul, director of
communications of the trade union federation.

The new Iraqi state is a case study in the free market unleashed. The Bush
Administration foresees two ways the Iraqi economy will be transformed, and
it is taking measures to ensure that workers don't disrupt either one.
First, it will privatize the old state enterprises that have employed most
workers. Second, it will create favorable conditions for an army of (mostly
U.S.) corporations to set up shop and repatriate their profits outside the

On September 19, the Coalition Provisional Authority published Order No. 39,
which permits 100 percent foreign ownership of businesses, except for the
oil industry, and allows repatriation of profits. Order No. 37, published
the same day, suspends income and property taxes for the year, and limits
taxes on individuals and corporations in the future to 15 percent.

In an October 8 phone press conference, Thomas Foley, director of private
sector development for the Coalition Provisional Authority, announced that
he would soon propose to the Iraqi Governing Council a list of the first
state enterprises to be sold off. While promising to exclude the oil wells,
electrical generation stations, and banks (at least at first), he mentioned
cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical
factories, and the country's airline. Some 138 of 600 state-owned
enterprises have already been offered for sale, according to some reports.

Dathar Al-Kashab, who was appointed to manage the Al Daura refinery two
months ago, having been an engineer there since 1966, predicts that
privatization would have an enormous effect. "A worker starting here today
has a job for life under the old system. There is no law that permits me to
lay him off. But if I put on the hat of privatization, I'll have to fire
1,500 [of the refinery's 3,000] workers," he says. "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

At the state-owned Mamoun Factory of Vegetable Oils, 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 twelve
years of sanctions, and the plant was inspected twenty times as a possible
site for chemical weapons production. Today, the plant's 771 workers worry
that despite the lack of repairs, the factory's huge assets make it a prime
candidate for sale to a private owner. Iraqi newspapers are already carrying
stories on possible buyers.

"There's no private person in Iraq with enough money to buy this place,"
says manager Amir Faraj Bhajet. "It would have to be a foreign owner. They
would like the assets, but would they want the workers?"

Despite the hostility of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the fall of
the Saddam regime has led to an explosion of workplace organizing activity.
Low wages are one motivation. The Iraqi government employs 70 percent of the
workforce. The authority has set an emergency pay scale. Though The New York
Times says wages are going up, that's not what I found. Most workers get
about $60 a month, a small group gets $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 regime.

"The current emergency wage is totally incapable of supporting us," says one
worker at the Al Daura oil refinery, complaining anonymously for fear that
he would lose his job.

In the last month, the refinery has seen three work stoppages. Workers
congregated in front of the management office to demand a pay hike.

At the General State Leather Industry Factory, the largest shoe factory in
the Middle East, one worker explains how she is supporting six people in her
family on $120 a month. "The price of food and clothing is going up rapidly,
and the salary is very low. We work hard, and I've been here ten years. I
have to have a raise," she pleads. On the day I visit the leather factory,
workers there organize a march to the labor ministry, complaining about
their manager and the wages.

These are not the only such demonstrations. Similar protests have been going
on at workplaces throughout the country.

The $87 billion that Congress just passed is not going to be used to
increase wages or implement a huge jobs program. About 70 percent of the
workforce--seven to eight million people--are unemployed. Nuri Jafer,
assistant to the Iraqi minister of labor, describes in glowing terms his
idea for a new system of unemployment benefits. He says he hopes to pay a
survival income "without removing the motivation from people to go out and
find jobs." Leaving aside his rote repetition of the free-marketeers' horror
that poor people might lose their desire to work, Nuri's explanation had one
other major problem. "Unfortunately," he concedes, "we have yet to find any
country willing to help us fund it."

Working conditions are exhausting and dangerous. At the Al Daura refinery,
Detrala Beshab, president of the refinery's new union, notes that while the
workday is officially seven hours, the day shift is actually eleven hours
long, and the night shift thirteen 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," he says.
"The coalition forces control the finances--and our wages."

The workers' situation is so desperate that 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 says with a laugh. 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. Essentially, workers
have suffered a drastic cut in income since April as a result of decisions
by the Coalition Provisional Authority. And a jump in the exchange rate 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," explains union member Rajid
Hassan. If workers get hurt or sick, they have to pay for their own medical
care, and they lose pay for the time they're off the job.

At the shoe and vegetable oil factories, another new labor group called the
Workers' Unions and Councils began organizing workers this summer. With its
encouragement, shoe factory workers formed 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. "Life has gotten much worse," one worker says.
"Everything is controlled by the coalition. We don't control anything."

About fifty people set off from the plant to the labor ministry on October
11 to demand legal status, while other workers who stayed behind explained
their demands. They spoke openly, but nevertheless feared to give their
names, saying they might be subject to retaliation. One of their leaders
declared that although he'd organized the march, the factory's managers had
forbidden him to participate in it.

"We're demanding the right to form a union," he explains, "which must have
full authority to represent workers here." Workers don't see the plant
management as the real boss. "The administration just represents the
ministry," he says. "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."

The factory's technical manager confirmed that it had sent a letter to the
ministry of mineral industries and resources, asking if the company could
negotiate with the new union. No, came the reply.

Even without legal status, however, unions are finding ways to operate and
win some demands. In the vegetable oil factory, the union was successfully
able to force managers to rehire some workers who had been fired under
Saddam for belonging to the Al Daiwa Party. That party, banned under Saddam,
now is a member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

The new union's demands include reclassifying the workers so they can
receive higher salaries, lifting the punishment of other banned former
employees, and reinstating profit-sharing. The union hopes to sign up
members in other state-owned factories. "A major reason for our existence is
to eliminate the laws issued by the Ba'ath regime," says its general
secretary, Majeed Sahib Kareem.

"For us, war and occupation are a reality," declares Abdullah Muhsin, the
federation's international representative. "We stood against the war before
it started, but we couldn't stop it. Now our concern is to help our country
and protect our members."

The federation wants Saddam's government-affliated union structure to be
dissolved. And it is demanding that the benefit funds and buildings be
turned over to the new unions. The occupation authorities have turned a deaf
ear to these appeals.

Another leader of the federation, Muhsen Mull Ali, 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," he says.

That fight is particularly difficult in the midst of a war against
occupation. If the armed conflict intensifies, the political space may

Keeping open the space for unions to organize and for workers to gain some
control over the economic decisions that will affect their lives is not a
concern of Iraqis alone. Union leaders from Britain, France, and the
International Labor Organization have visited Iraq to press for workers'

Arab trade unionists are among the most adamant. "War makes privatization
easy: First you destroy the society, and then you let the corporations
rebuild it," says Hacene Djemam, general secretary of the International
Confederation of Arab Trade Unions.

Meanwhile, labor peace activists in the United States have begun to reach
out to the new Iraqi unions. U.S. Labor Against the War, which brought
together unions and labor councils that opposed the Bush intervention before
it took place, is speaking up again. It has announced it will mount a
national campaign to oppose privatization, get the 1987 law lifted, and
expose the violations of labor rights in Iraq. "We need Congressional
hearings into the union-busting actions by the U.S. occupation authorities
in Iraq," says Clarence Thomas, of the San Francisco Longshore local. "If
unions here knew what's being done in our name over there, they'd be

A delegation from U.S. Labor Against the War visited Iraq in October to
investigate conditions. The group had a formal meeting with Nuri of the
Iraqi labor ministry. He was asked three times whether the 1987 law would be
repealed. Each time he made a long speech but in the end failed to answer
the question. Sitting on a couch next to him in his ornate office was Leslie
Findley, a British representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority,
who is assigned to oversee the ministry. She was asked the same question and
also refused to answer. Then she complained about the number of foreign
union delegations visiting the ministry. "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."


David Bacon is a labor journalist and photographer. His forthcoming book on
the free market's devastation of the U.S.-Mexico border, "The Children of
NAFTA," is due out in January.

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]