Iraqis Denied Worker Rights Under U.S. Occupation

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Labor journalist David Bacon exposes how the Bush administration is systematically busting unions in Iraq to facilitate privatization and how none of the $87 billion appropriated by Congress for reconstruction will go to Iraqi workers or the unemployed. [includes transcript]

As the Bush administration prepares the way for the transformation of the Iraqi economy through privatization of state enterprises it is not considering protecting or reinforcing labor rights in Iraq. Iraqi workers have suffered a drastic cut in income since April as a result of Coalition Provisional Authority decisions and are now getting paid on the same wage scale that prevailed under the last few years of the Saddam Hussein regime. None of the $87 billion recently appropriated by Congress for reconstruction in Iraq will go to Iraqi workers or the unemployed–which now total about 70% of the population.

In response, Iraqis have been protesting at workplaces throughout the country demanding better salaries and working conditions. But since April the CPA has essentially banned unions in Iraqi state enterprises, and even issued a decree prohibiting strikes

  • * David Bacon*, labor journalist who returned from Iraq last week. His article “The Occupation’s War on Iraqi Workers” appears in the upcoming issue of the Progressive.

AMY GOODMAN: A piece from Baghdad begins: Iraqis Needed a raise desperately. For six months, they have been paid at an emergency levels dictated by the U.S. Occupation Authority, known as the Coalition Provisional Authority, or C.P.A.

Most workers get $60 a month, a small percentage $120 a month, and a tiny minority, mostly administrators and managers, $180. This is the same wage scale that prevailed during the last few years of the Saddam Hussein regime.

We’re joined on the phone by David Bacon, a well-known Labour Reporter, to talk about union busting in Iraq. Welcome to Democracy Now! , David.

DAVID BACON: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what is happening when it comes to privatization, unions, and pay in Iraq?

DAVID BACON: Well, the Bush administration is trying to set up Iraqi factories for privatization.

Most Iraqi workers work in factories that belong to the Iraqi Government, and the Bush administration, and the Coalition Provisional Authority has decided to enforce a law that was passed by Saddam Hussein in 1987, which prohibits unions and collective bargaining in factories that are owned by the Iraqi government.

These are the ones like the oil refineries, like factories, for instance, making vegetable oil or shoes, which I visited when I was in Iraq this last month, which are set to be privatized.

And not only that, but on June 16, the Occupation Authority, Paul Bremer, issued a new regulation called “prohibitive activity,” which prohibits anybody from even encouraging any kind of strike or labor dispute in any factory or installation in Iraq and threatens to take anybody who does this Prisoner of War — under Geneva Convention 49.

So, essentially Iraqi workers are being denied the basic rights that are supposed to be guaranteed them until all workers under conventions of the international labor organization that have been signed both by the Iraqi government and by the U.S. government, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are people saying in Iraq right now?

DAVID BACON: Well, people are — Despite these prohibitions, there are new unions that have begun organizing workers in factories, in the wake of the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Both the old federation that was suppressed by Saddam Hussein in 1977 reorganized itself in the wake of the fall of the regime and has sent organizers out to, for instance, one of the oil refineries, which I visited when I was in Iraq. Workers there elected union committees in the different departments because they’re very unhappy over, first of all, the wage level that you described. It is not enough for people to live on.

And, in fact, wages have gone down since the occupation started. Because although the monetary wage is about the same, workers lost things like profit sharing, bonuses, food subsidies and housing subsidies, which theyíd had before. So essentially, their income has gone down.

Unemployment in Iraq is about 70%. So, workers are very concerned about having to hang on to the jobs that theyíve got. And the manager of the oil refinery in Baghdad told me that if privatization were to take place he would have to lay off about half of the 3,000 workers that work at that plant.

So, workers are motivated to form these unions, both by the fact that they’re unhappy over their economic situation in the wake of the Occupation, but also because they’re very concerned about these plans for privatization that are being announced almost daily in the newspapers in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: I remember being in Haiti during the coup and going over to the U.S. embassy to talk to the spokesperson there.

The U.S. Congress had allocated money for Haiti and I asked where this money was going — and he wanted to be very re-assuring and said most does not come to Haiti, of course, it comes to U.S. companies — to assure me, as a U.S. citizen, where my tax dollars were going.

We see the same thing, it sounds like what you’re saying, in Iraq. Here you have Iraqis who have been protesting at workplaces throughout the country.

You’re saying none of the $87 billion appropriated by Congress for reconstruction in Iraq will go to Iraqi workers, or the unemployed, who now number around seven million to eight million people there?

DAVID BACON: That’s right, Amy.

Remember that the $87 billion is on top of the $60 billion that was appropriated to fight the war. So, we have a total of $147 billion that is being spent, or is set to be spent in Iraq — and this money is going to be spent not on improving conditions for the Iraqi population.

For instance, there is no unemployment benefit system in Iraq. If you lose your job, if you are one of those lucky people who has a job and you lose it, youíre in deep trouble because there is no unemployment benefit system.

We met with the Assistant Minister of Labor, Dr. Nouri Bashad and his British minder, a woman named Leslie Findley, and asked them point blank, first of all, if the Coalition was going to continue enforcing the 1987 law.

They refused to answer that question.

Dr. Bashad went on a long explanation of the new unemployment benefit system he intended to set up and concluded by saying, unfortunately, we can’t find any country that’s willing to fund it. That includes the United States.

That $87 billion will not be spent on an unemployment benefit system. But it is not going to be spent on wages, either. The Occupation authority has reclassified all of the wage categories in Iraq three times in the last six months, but has yet to raise the wages there a dime. So, it just reclassifies and reclassifies and reclassifies without actually improving the wage level of people.

That money is going to be spent on things like rebuilding the oil pipelines and the ports and the infra- structure that are needed to get oil exports started from Iraq — Infrastructure that are needed to get the security situation improved, but that is not going to improve the living conditions and working situation of the Iraqi people themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, it will not improve the security in the country if Iraqi workers are treated like this.

DAVID BACON: No. It’s certainly is not going to do that.

What it does is it makes the soldiers over there more and more and more of a target. The longer the Occupation goes on and the more money spent on it, more the Occupation Authority itself becomes the target.

And these new unions being formed in Iraq are all calling for an end to the Occupation as part of what they see will improve conditions for Iraqi workers and also give them some voice over the direction of the Iraqi economy. Right now, workers have no voice over these privatization plans.

They’re simply being announced by Americans, by people from the United States like Tom Foley, who is the Occupation Authority’s representative for private sector development. He gets into the newspapers in Baghdad and announces the industries that will be privatized.

But there is no process, even, of consultation with Iraqi workers, let alone any process in which they can decide over whether or not the property of the Iraqi government is going to be sold off or turned over to private owners.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to David Bacon. His piece “The Occupation’ s War on Iraqi Workers” is appearing in “Progressive” magazine,

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