by ALI ABU IRAQ AND BEN LANDO
Wednesday, January 29th, 2014
BASRA – Unions representing the oil sector and other Iraqi workers are pressing Parliament to pass labor and union laws before their current session ends, measures that would end Saddam Hussein-era imposition on worker rights and go far toward addressing outstanding demands by workers of the state-owned South Oil Company (SOC) .
Public-sector unions were banned under Saddam Hussein and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and then subsequent Iraqi governments have specifically refused to discard one of the few remaining legal vestiges of the late dictator.
Language in the 2005 Constitution recognizes worker rights and the right to unionize, but calls on Parliament to pass legislation that protects and regulates both, though multiple drafts have been put forward. The International Labor Organization (ILO) and other global workers’ rights groups and unions have helped write and lobbied for legislation.
Currently, there are three different versions of both the labor and union laws in different stages of the legislative process, though unions demand they be taken up as a package. The labor laws have gotten two readings but the union law has not had its first yet. After the second reading it can be voted on.
Unions are pressing for the labor and union laws that were vetted by the ILO, claiming the government-backed Parliament Labor Committee versions are restrictive of worker rights and don’t include public-sector unions, and that a version of the laws by the Sadrist movement are even more worrisome, according to an official at the pan-union solidarity group U.S. Labor Against the War, which works with Iraqi unions. “The unions have put forward dozens of proposed changes to conform with ILO standards,” the official said.
They are also in a race for approval before the end of the Parliament’s term in June.
This month, the leadership of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq and the two factions of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers sent a letter to Iraqi Parliament Speaker Usama al-Nujaifi, demanding action on laws that the union and ILO agrees with.
It claims that recommendations to improve the laws, including at public meetings where government and Parliament representatives were in attendance, “were ignored.”
“Particularly with regard to employment contracts and collective labor relations and labor disputes and mechanisms to resolve them; the draft law came out lacking many legal aspects and with regard to collective labor disputes and means of negotiation, mediation and arbitration, the law even restricts and in some cases disallows freedom of collective negotiation,” the letter said.
The unions claim the laws being pushed by the government are in conflict with international labor standard agreements to which Iraq has long been a signatory, and does not go far enough to protect foreign workers nor govern disputes between foreign and Iraqi workers.
“We ask for your immediate intervention to stop passing this law until all the necessary corrections are made, because if this law is passed in its current form, this could result in … a disaster for workers and this historic responsibility lies on you,” the letter said. “Our memory still retains painful memories from laws enacted to strip workers of their rights, and we are confident that you are on side with the Iraqi working class in these difficult conditions and will form a committee to make the necessary amendments and pass the law during your current session.”
While the workers press for legislation, they also demand an improvement of workers rights on the ground. In the past few years, protesting workers have been punished including by forced job and location changes and arrest.
Protests against draft oil legislation in 2007 and 2008, which workers said would be too generous to IOCs, were often met by security forces and arrest warrants. The government has attempted numerous time over the past year to convict Hassan Juma, the president of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, on allegations that he organized protests that stopped work and harmed the national economy, though Basra courts twice dismissed the case for lack of evidence. A conviction would have led to jail time.
At least 16 union workers have outstanding fines of a combined $600,000 due to their union activity and organizing protests.
Hundreds of SOC workers held protests throughout December, including a major rally on Dec. 10 in front of the SOC’s Basra headquarters where they outlined demands including equal bonus payments to workers who work directly for the SOC and those who have been seconded to international oil company (IOC)-led projects. They have also demanded payment of promised annual bonuses from the government based on a redistribution of a portion of SOC profits and increased land and housing allocation for workers.
The unions are meeting to determine their next steps, including considering rolling protests in oil fields, though those actions would not shut-in production, a measure of last resort that union officials have said is not off the table.
Ali Abu Iraq reported from Basra. Ben Lando reported from the U.S.