The troops fight for Mosul, Iraq’s unions fight for a fairer, freer country…

The news that the Iraqi government has finally ratified the International Labour Organization’s 1948 Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize (C 87) is undoubtedly an historic step in Iraq’s progress towards becoming a fully democratic state. With the battle for Mosul as its background, the ratification is also an indication of the determination of the current Iraqi government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to restore the health of civic society. But Iraq’s unions are still pushing for more and deeper reform.

Following the 2003 Iraq war, unions in Iraq began to organize themselves and launched a campaign for new labour and trade union laws. The repressive Saddam-era laws barred normal union activity and were actively enforced even after the US-led invasion. They prevented unions from striking, independently organizing, bargaining collectively in both public and private sectors, holding funds, collecting dues, or maintaining assets.

The emerging new unions and union federations, who were all broadly opposed to the occupation of Iraq, sought support from the wider international workers’ movement. By 2013, six Iraqi unions and union federations representing workers in essential industries, including oil, petrochemicals and electricity, joined IndustriALL Global Union. Ultimately, nine organizations affiliated and they included the main union organizations in Iraq, in all parts of the country from Basra in the south to Erbil in the North.

In Iraq’s complicated landscape of political allegiances, affiliation to IndustriALL enabled disparate and frequently competing unions and union federations to work together, and in 2013, the affiliates created a new “IndustriALL Global Union National Council” with the support of the Iraqi national trade union centre, the General Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions (GFITU). This was an important step on the road to new trade union legislation aimed at freeing the Iraqi unions from the shackles of authoritarianism.

In 2014, Iraq’s post-transition Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was facing widespread accusations of corruption and sectarianism. He was eventually replaced by Al-Abadi, who has proved to be a more open and pragmatic leader. A little more than a year after Al-Abadi came to power, his government finally passed a new labour law allowing the right to strike and collective bargaining, and prohibiting child labour, discrimination and sexual harassment.

The new law also included improvements to maternity and pregnancy leave, and extended rights to sub-contractors and migrant workers in the private, mixed and cooperative sectors. Only members of the armed forces and workers already covered by civil service law were excluded.

It had taken more than ten years of campaigning and industrial action to get this far, but the new law said nothing about the critical principle of freedom of association. Without enshrining that principle in law, Iraq’s unions would always be at the mercy of the state. The lack of official recognition had already hurt two of the country’s largest union federations, the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) and the Federation of Oil Unions of Iraq (FOUI), when the GFITU was granted the exclusive right to unionize public sector workers.

The union federations had a history of cooperation, at least since 2007 when all three joined forces to oppose the US-backed “National Oil Law”, and continued the fight for legislation that met all international standards, including Convention 87. On 25 October 2016, the Iraqi government approved Convention 87, and referred it to parliament for ratification.

According to IndustriALL, “This provides a promising environment for parliament to discuss an improved trade union law in the near future.” Representatives of the IndustriALL Iraqi National Council have drafted such a law recognizing union pluralism and free democratic unions. The draft was submitted to the Iraqi Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in early October 2016.

“Despite all the difficulties unions face,” said Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL’s assistant general secretary, “our work will always supplement the efforts of the brave Iraqi veterans for a trade union law compatible with the international standards.” IndustriALL argues that full recognition of freedom of association is vital to the stability of Iraq’s nascent democracy.

On 30 August 2016, the IndustriALL Iraqi National Council met in Amman, Jordan, to develop its programme, in the light of the challenges confronting Iraqi workers and workers’ organizations. The meeting drew up an action plan that prioritises building the strength of the affiliates, continuing the campaign for the adoption of a new trade union law, and raising awareness of the labour law adopted last year.

“There are tremendous political, economic and security problems in Iraq,” said Hassan Juma, president of the FOUI. “Our brothers of the Iraqi army are now at the front to free Mosul from the hands of ISIS. We are taking our positions too, and are working closely with union leaders for a fairer and free Iraq — we are on the right track.”

As part of its campaign, IndustriALL organized a series of workshops in Basra, Baghdad and Erbil in September and October. The workshops attracted numerous young people and women, along with local union leaders, and discussed the proposed new labour law and how unions and workers can make best use of it, focussing on collective bargaining, wages, and the protection of working women.

“Our dream of enacting a modern trade union law can be achieved by joining forces and expanding workers’ participation and awareness, including both women and youth,” said Hashmeya Alsaadawi, president of the General Union of Electricity Workers and Technicians in Basra and co-chair of IndustriALL’s Middle East and North Africa region.

“Recent activities involving and reaching workers and unionists reflect the serious engagement of the leaders and is the foundation for achieving our goal.”

More details

Iraq: Iraq ratifies to ILO Convention No. 87 ‘Freedom of Association’“, Arab Trade Union Confederation, Amman, 31 October 2016.

Iraqi workers need good laws now!“, IndustriALL, Geneva, 14 November 2013.

ILO Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize (C 87), 1948. ILO, Geneva.

General Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions (GFITU), Website, Baghdad (in Arabic).

Iraq Trade Union Bulletin 2.16, PDF, Solidarity Center, February 2016.

Determined struggle brings Iraqi workers new labour law“, US Labor Against the War, 26 August 2015.

Abdullah Muhsin, “Iraqi unions are still demanding better“, Stronger Unions, TUC, London, 5 January 2015.

Iraq: unions demand legal rights over ratification of ILO C87“,  IndustriALL, Geneva, 4 November 2016.

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Gary Herman

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