Iraqi unionists face prison in spite of proposed new labour law



Trade unions in Iraq may gain real legal status for the first time in decades if a proposed new labour and trade union law is passed by parliament.

But even if it abolishes Iraq’s anti-labour restrictions which stem from the eras of Saddam Hussein and the US occupation, the situation facing trade union leaders in Iraq’s all-important oil sector is as tenuous as ever.

“The government wants to destroy our union,” Hassan Juma’a Awad, President of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU), told Equal Times. “They will not allow us to work as a union.

“Law 150, passed under Saddam Hussein, is still being enforced, and the Iraqi government uses this law to prohibit the operation of Iraqi unions. Another law, special to our union, doesn’t allow the workers in the general labour department to join.”

On 10 November, 2013 a court in Basra dismissed, for the second time, charges against Juma’a.

However, IFOU Vice-President Ibrahim Rhadi and sixteen other union activists are still being prosecuted, and face fines totalling more than US$600,000, an impossibly large sum for oil workers to pay.

Rhadi’s fine alone is US$30,000. “If Ibrahim doesn’t pay, he’ll be fired from his job,” Juma’a says. “Then they will put him in jail.”



The charges stem from protests organised by the union early this year, when hundreds of workers demonstrated on three separate occasions outside the building of the state-owned South Oil Company (SOC) in Basra, calling for its director and his aides to resign.

The strikes were fuelled by poverty among oil workers, despite the billions of dollars in oil they produce. “Iraqi workers are in a very unstable situation,” Juma’a charges.

“Our wages are very low. We can’t live on the salaries we make. There are no social guarantees or health insurance. There is no modern labour law to give us our rights.

Workers also accuse the company of refusing to pay contractual bonuses due since 2010 (over US$303 million), and reneging on promises to build housing and provide medical care, especially to workers suffering exposure to depleted uranium used during the war.

SOC and the transnational companies entering Iraq to exploit the oilfields also tend to rely on temporary workers instead of permanent employees, to avoid requirements that 85 per cent of the workforce be made up of Iraqi nationals.

When charges were brought by SOC the court dismissed them in July, because the company could not provide any evidence that the work stoppages caused any damages.

The company appealed, however, and a higher court ordered the charges reinstated.

On 10 November, 2013 the lower court again noted that the company had provided no evidence, and dismissed them.

“The government put charges against me because of the strikes,” Juma’a says.

“I told workers to demand their rights, and was accused of organising an illegal work stoppage because I’m the union president.”



Meanwhile, however, the Ministry of Oil, which owns and directs the SOC, imposed administrative fines on Rhadi and the others, in retaliation for their roles in organising worker protests.

Another SOC worker, Alaa Abdul Redha, was stripped of benefits and transferred to a distant location, a punishment used against other oil union activists in the past.

The oil union in Iraq is hobbled in its efforts both to bargain for its members, and to defend them against criminal and administrative punishment for their union activity, because it is still subject to Saddam Hussein’s notorious Law 150.

Passed in 1987, it forbids unions in the public sector, which encompasses 80 per cent of all industry, including the state-owned oil sector.

In 2005 the country adopted a constitution that requires the government to permit unions, but no labour and union law has been passed that implements that goal.

Meanwhile, Law 150 remains on the books, as it did throughout the US occupation.

Unions with no legal recognition have immense problems collecting dues, opening offices, or even bank accounts.

To coordinate efforts to win a new law, six Iraqi unions joined IndustriALL, and in July created a new National Council in Baghdad.

IndustriALL Assistant General Secretary Kemal Özkan met with Iraqi government officials to press them to act. “If the trade union legislation is not adopted now, nobody knows when the next opportunity will be, and we cannot wait years and years for this,” he said in a press statement.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow criticised some of the most recent drafts for “failing to address the major flaws of the Hussein-era legislation, including to extend the legal right to freedom of association to the vast public sector.

This is unacceptable. We urge the parliament not to squander this opportunity to at last bring its laws into line with international standards.”

IndustriALL has launched a campaign to support the passage of the law, and US Labor Against the War is calling for letters and actions to support Rhadi and the other oil union leaders still in danger.