A group of Iraqi labor leaders are here in the United States trying to bring international attention to the lack of a basic labor law in Iraq guaranteeing the right to unionize without repression. Although the United States has scrapped several Saddam Hussein-era laws since the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, a 1987 law banning unions in all public-sector workplaces remains in place. Last week the AFL-CIO adopted a resolution defending Iraqi labor rights. We speak to Iraqi labor leaders Rasim Awadi and Falah Alwan. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
We turn now to Iraq, where Vice President Biden recently pressed Iraqi leaders to enact further regulatory and financial protections to make Iraq more attractive to foreign investors. Speaking to Iraqi officials in Baghdad’s Green Zone last week, Biden called for the Iraqi Parliament to adopt laws to offer more incentives on oil concessions. He also noted the Iraq Business and Investment Conference in Washington next month could encourage private US investment in the country.
Well, as the Vice President was in Iraq promoting privatization last week, a group of Iraqi labor leaders were here in the United States attending the AFL-CIO convention, trying to bring international attention to the lack of basic labor law in Iraq guaranteeing the right to unionize without repression.
Although the United States has scrapped several Saddam Hussein-era laws since the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, a 1987 law banning unions in all public-sector workplaces remains in place.
The AFL-CIO adopted a resolution defending Iraqi labor rights last week, and US Labor Against the War is urging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to press the Iraqi government to protect labor rights.
For more now, I’m joined by two labor leaders from Iraq. Rasim Awadi is the president of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers, which was formed by the merger of three federations created by Iraqi workers following the 2003 invasion. And Falah Alwan is the president of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq. He was an underground labor activist throughout the ’90s, working in textile and factories and retail stores until the invasion. They will interpreted by Ali Issa.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!
I would like to start with Rasim Awadi. The situation of labor law, or lack of it, in Iraq?
[translated] Actually, there’s a complete lack of labor law for the Iraqi working class, and the laws now in effect are the same ones that Saddam set in place in the past regime. And for this reason, the Iraqi labor movement is limited in what it can do and is subject to past labor laws, in addition to the fact that Iraqi labor union leaders are trying to re-enliven some of the labor union activism in the public sector. And since 2003, many of the labor unions have resurrected the structure and the infrastructure of unions and have pushed back on some of the old labor laws that unified one union only as the representative of Iraqi workers.
But we still suffer from three main points: the lack of a general labor law, 51 percent of unemployment, a complete lack of a stable service sector for workers. So, a lack of a retirement plan, social security and social services for workers are not there. For that reason, workers are in a very dangerous position since the occupation, but we hope that some of our union leaders will be able to realize what Iraqi workers hope for.
Falah Alwan, has the US invasion and occupation led to democracy in Iraq? You were an underground labor activist through the 1990s?
What’s happening now?
Yeah, let me give you an image about what happened to the society, not only to the activists, after the occupation. All what we gained is the devastation of the fundamental basis of the industries and the infrastructure of the society and lack of the rights of the women and reducing of the financial to support or to provide the services in general. Until now, there is no law to protect the workers or all — there is no labor law to the workers to protect their rights to organize themselves or to create their unions.
For example, since about two or three weeks, we tried only to take a permission to hold a peaceful gathering to the workers of the food industries in Baghdad, but the authorities refused to give us the right to hold a peaceful demonstration of the 350 workers who threatened to be — to lose their jobs and to privatize and to cancel their companies. This is an example of the democracy in the society.
If you ask me about the differences between the fascism era of Saddam and now, the people can talk, people can issue statements. But in the reality, the authorities didn’t give us the right to implement our demands or to improve the conditions of the workers or to improve the whole situation of the workers’ rights or even of the all society. Yeah.
Who is in charge in Iraq?
I think both the occupation forces and the authorities which were imposed by the occupation itself. As you know, after 2003, the occupation imposed authorities according to dividing the people, dividing the society, according the religion, the language, the tribe, the — and they imposed a so-called “governing council.” Until now, the authority is still as it was before. They created a religious atmosphere of the society. They imposed very oppressive laws against women, against the workers, and against the whole freedoms. Yeah.
Falah Alwan, I want to switch gears, as we come to the end of the discussion — that’s oil privatization. Biden, our Vice President, was in Iraq promoting privatization. What’s happening with oil and workers in Iraq?
Well, I think privatization of the oil is the economical dimension of the occupation itself. So, it is the main important issue for the occupation to impose the privatization, but there is a mass refusing to this project. That is why they are privatization — privatizing the oil indirectly by the leases or by the contracts with the companies.
You can see that the US administration insists to impose this so-called oil law in the time that they are never intervene to impose a worker law or to urge the Iraqi authorities to expand the workers’ rights. I think the privatization of the oil is a strategic task of the US administration. So, it is a main dimension of the occupation.
Rasim Awadi, you’re here in the United States. You’re going back to Iraq on Wednesday. Your final message to the American people?
[translated] We first ask that the American people put pressure on their government to withdraw American forces from Iraq. And second, we ask the American people to assist us in reinstalling our infrastructure, from education, water, electricity; all these things that have been abandoned in our society.
And during our trip now, we got a lot of support from the American working class through their unions, and we thank them for that support. And the American working class showed their support and willingness to aid the Iraqi working class.
Rasim Awadi and Falah Alwan, labor leaders from Iraq, I thank you very much for being with us.