Iraqi oil workers on the march

Ten years after the occupation of Iraq trade unions are fighting back, reports Mike Phipps.

On April 16, over a thousand workers from the Basra oilfields converged on the headquarters of the Southern Oil Company. They came to demand unpaid bonuses, the upgrading of temporary workers to permanent status and other elementary rights. A tent city was set up — the workers are digging for a long haul.

Oil workers at Basra - Photo: Ewa Jasiewicz

Oil workers at Basra – Photo: Ewa Jasiewicz

This protest came despite the prosecution of Hassan Juma, President of the Federation of Oil Unions in Iraq, who has been charged by the Ministry of Oil with allegedly organising strikes. The court case has been repeatedly postponed, however, due to the inability of the oil companies to present a shred of evidence.

The union’s campaign began in mid-February against the practices of major multinational oil companies in the region, including BP. It quickly turned into a fierce battle with the Iraqi government that threw its security and intelligence apparatuses against the workers.

Some of the unpaid bonuses go back years. When the mass demonstration converged on the company headquarters, the general manager came out and informed the angry protesters that he had met with the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Minister of Oil Al Shahristani, who authorised him to release 50% of the accumulated production bonuses from 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Union leaders were more sceptical. They declared that they would see if the Government would keep its word before demobilising. Iraq exports about 80% of its oil through Basra’s oil fields and the workers’ conditions, including in the multinational firms, are no better than in Saddam Hussein’s time.

Hassan Juma faces a possible jail sentence of up to five years under a 1987 law banning public sector employees from organising protests or strikes that could harm the economy. This is one of the few pieces of Saddam Husseinera legislation that American authorities left on the books after the 2003 takeover. Juma accuses 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 civilised manner, provided there is no damage to public property.”

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 organise a prospective strike against an oil law that some workers judged as too generous to foreign companies. It was his union that insisted no oil law be signed, while the occupation was still ongoing.

Oil, probably the central reason for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, remains a vital part of Iraqi identity. The civil society campaign against the oil law the multinationals wanted led to its being voted down by the Iraqi Parliament in 2007. The agreement eventually signed fell far short of the companies’ demands.

US Labor Against the War is calling on all supporters to sign a letter calling on the Iraqi Government to drop the charges against Hassan Juma.

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