Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Iraq: Non-Union Corporate Paradise?

Another article by David Bacon (see here for the first one) about the suppression of Iraqi labor unions by U.S. occupation forces.
The new Iraqi state is a case study in the free market unleashed. The Bush Administration foresees two ways the Iraqi economy will be transformed, and it is taking measures to ensure that workers don't disrupt either one. First, it will privatize the old state enterprises that have employed most workers. Second, it will create favorable conditions for an army of (mostly U.S.) corporations to set up shop and repatriate their profits outside the country.

On September 19, the Coalition Provisional Authority published Order No. 39, which permits 100 percent foreign ownership of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allows repatriation of profits. Order No. 37, published the same day, suspends income and property taxes for the year, and limits taxes on individuals and corporations in the future to 15 percent.
Low pay and poor working conditions are encourging workers to organize:
Despite the hostility of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the fall of the Saddam regime has led to an explosion of workplace organizing activity. Low wages are one motivation. The Iraqi government employs 70 percent of the workforce. The authority has set an emergency pay scale. Though The New York Times says wages are going up, that's not what I found. Most workers get about $60 a month, a small group gets $120, and a tiny minority (mostly administrators and managers) $180. This is the same wage scale that prevailed under the last few years of the Saddam Hussein regime.


Working conditions are exhausting and dangerous. At the Al Daura refinery, Detrala Beshab, president of the refinery's new union, notes that while the workday is officially seven hours, the day shift is actually eleven hours long, and the night shift thirteen hours. Since workers are paid by the month, there is no overtime pay.


No one in the refinery, except the fire department, has boots or gloves. Safety glasses are unknown. "Lots of us have breathing problems, and there are accidents in which people get burned," explains union member Rajid Hassan. If workers get hurt or sick, they have to pay for their own medical care, and they lose pay for the time they're off the job.
Despite organizing efforts, U.S. occupation authorities have refused to rescind a Sadaam Hussein law banning unions in publicly owned enterprises, which makes up most of Iraqi industry, until it is privatized.

But Iraqi workers have a few friends in the U.S.
Meanwhile, labor peace activists in the United States have begun to reach out to the new Iraqi unions. U.S. Labor Against the War, which brought together unions and labor councils that opposed the Bush intervention before it took place, is speaking up again. It has announced it will mount a national campaign to oppose privatization, get the 1987 law lifted, and expose the violations of labor rights in Iraq. "We need Congressional hearings into the union-busting actions by the U.S. occupation authorities in Iraq," says Clarence Thomas, of the San Francisco Longshore local. "If unions here knew what's being done in our name over there, they'd be outraged."