Iraq Oil Report Workers at Iraq’s South Oil Company protest against years of delayed bonus payments and other benefits and working conditions.
(ALI ABU IRAQ/Iraq Oil Report)
Published Tuesday, April 9th, 2013
BASRA – In spite of the impending prosecution of a prominent union leader, oil workers in Basra have renewed their protests demanding better treatment.
Employees of South Oil Company (SOC) have created a tent city outside of the state-run company’s headquarters in Basra, decrying unpaid bonuses, demands to transfer temporary workers to permanent status, and other complaints. They plan to protest for at least 10 days.
Meanwhile, Hassan Juma, the head of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, is preparing to defend himself against criminal charges that he organized a protest and strike that harmed Iraq’s economy. His court date in Basra was scheduled for April 7, but it has now been postponed two weeks, according to officials familiar with the case.
“This is a warning to the labor movement there,” said Michael Eisencher, the head of U.S. Labor against the War, a coalition of American unions.
Juma faces jail time under a 1987 law banning public sector employees from organizing protests or strikes that could harm the economy – one of the few pieces of Saddam Hussein-era legislation that American authorities left on the books after the 2003 takeover.
Oil accounts for nearly all of state revenue – more than $94 billion in 2012 – and the government is especially sensitive to any actions that threaten this vital income stream.
“If there is a finding of an impact on the economy, then he will go to jail for five years,” Eisencher said. “If not, then there will be a fine.”
Some sources say the maximum sentence is three years.
Juma and his supporters deny the charges. The current SOC protest was not organized directly in response to Juma’s prosecution, although the groups are sympathetic to the union leader. Several demonstrators expressed their resolve to make their demands heard.
“We will continue to protest until our legitimate demands are met by the relevant authority, which has repeatedly promised us to resolve these disputes,” said Kareem Abdul Sada, a spokesman for the protesters.
For the moment, the Iraqi authorities in Basra are tolerating the demonstration.
“The protesters got the required approvals from the local government,” said Dhia Jaffar, the director general of SOC, who said the demonstration was legal “as long as the protesters do not cut off streets or impede work.”
The Iraqi government has often had little patience for such protests, however. Security forces have used force against Iraqi oil workers in the past, and more recently in Anbar and Ninewa province they have clashed with angry Iraqis denouncing the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Oil Minisry has also used a heavy hand in meting out consequences to those who lead protests in the oil sector. Organizers have been transferred from operations where they have lived and worked for decades to other parts of the country.
Those who have called on or participated in strikes have been threatened with prosecution under a wide-ranging anti-terrorism law, since the government interprets their actions as a danger to the state.
“Iraq calls for democracy and is trying hard to reach a deal in state institutions on the principles of democracy, but regrettably, that talk is not applied on the ground today,” said Juma. He accused the government of “overriding the Iraqi constitution, which gave the right to protest and strike, and which acknowledges the right of any citizen to express his opinion in a civilized manner, provided there is no damage to public property.”
Before 2003, traditional unions were illegal in Iraq, specifically in the public sector. Inasmuch as they existed, unions or worker syndicates were essentially arms of the state, with real powers exercised only to keep workers in line, not to bargain collectively.
The Iraqi Constitution, approved in 2005, calls for modern labor laws that would clearly define rights to protest and organize into unions. Several organizations, including the United Nations, the International Labor Organization and the World Bank, have helped draft such legislation, but efforts have stalled amidst Iraq’s dysfunctional political situation.
International organizations in the United States and Europe have helped Iraqi workers organize under the spirit of the constitutionally-mandated law, and have lobbied Iraqi and American officials to uphold worker rights.
An appeal letter to Maliki has been signed by international worker groups, including the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) representing millions of workers, to ease off Juma and move forward with a labor law.
Other labor groups in Iraq, including the General Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq and the General Federation of Trade Unions in Iraq, which represent a combined hundreds of thousands in various public sector industries, issued statements condemning the charges against Juma and others, and called for implementing laws that protect the right to protest and strike.
“Because they are public sector workers, the law in Iraq doesn’t recognize their unions,” said Erin Radford, an Iraq program officer with the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center in Washington. Workers “might get a demotion or lose their bonus pay just because they participated in a demonstration.
” Iraq’s oil unions have positioned themselves as a guardian of Iraq’s oil on behalf of the Iraqi people. In March 2007, Juma helped organize a prospective strike against an oil law that some workers judged to be too generous to foreign companies.
“We have promised that we will be responsible for protecting the oil sector,” Juma said in an interview at the time, “and we will do whatever (is required) to do so.”
Three months later, after an alleged promise of a seat at the oil law negotiating table was reneged, workers at the Oil Pipeline Company in Basra began to strike when no bonus was paid. That set off a series of solidarity strikes that expanded throughout the oil sector and beyond. On the third day, Iraqi Security Forces surrounded the main strike and protest location and warrants were issued for leaders.
While tension eased, disputes remained. The unions were adamant that no oil law should be passed while Iraq was under U.S. occupation; they also demanded that any law adhere to the standards set in the constitution, defining oil as a national resource belonging to all Iraqis – and not foreign companies.
The Oil Ministry issued memos to its various directorates that the unions were not to be considered representatives of the workers, banning ministry employees from conducting union business on government premises.
In 2011, oil workers began protesting lax pay. Ministry leaders in Baghdad responded with threats of demotion and other punishments, prompting workers to threaten to strike. A union leader was fined $30,000 for damage from a fire, which was allegedly the result of the strike in a refinery.
In February 2013, farmers began protesting against lack of payment for land that was taken over by oil development and a failure to live up to promise of jobs. At the same time, workers in Iraq’s southern oil fields began their recent rounds of protest.
A list of demands, issued by workers in the SOC last month, contains 24 items that range from back pay to state housing, improved health care and hazard duty pay, and a second, dedicated highway connecting to North Rumaila in order to reduce traffic accidents.
Authorities appeared to be somewhat responsive. In late February, the SOC posted three letters affixed to its headquarters’ windows.
One was from Jaffar to Maliki, dated Feb. 23. In it, the SOC director asked the prime minister to make progress in response to several urgent priorities: processing the annual bonuses promised to workers; empowering the SOC in what Jaffar called a “power gap” between the state-run company and the foreign oil companies operating in Iraq; increasing support provided by security forces in guarding field operations; granting “adequate powers” to solve agricultural land disputes in oil fields; and broadening SOC’s powers and support to increase pay and hiring.
The two other letters were orders to begin construction of two massive worker residential complexes.
Even as Jaffar seemed to be making attempts to address the protesters’ concerns, however, Iraqi authorities also took actions against the protesters themselves. Around the same time Jaffar’s letters were issued, Juma and colleagues were being questioned by the Inspector General’s office for allegedly organizing protests and strikes.
Ali Abu Iraq reported from Basra. Ben Lando reported from the United States. Ben Van Heuvelen and Iraqi staff, anonymous for their security, contributed from Baghdad.