A million on the march

GARY KENT reports on a nine day fact-finding trip to meet trade unionists in Iraq

It rarely makes the news here but a million trade unionists are on the march in Iraq. A new network of non-sectarian union federations, professional associations and civil society groups has emerged in Iraq, having been brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein’s fascist-type régime for decades.

These free unions and other civil society organisations could hold the key to uniting the country in peace and prosperity.

Iraqi unions told our British labour movement delegation that they need urgent assistance to boost their clout as a social partner in reconstructing Iraq. This is a huge task. Iraqis have long been isolated from modern thinking in every field of human activity. This is why Labour Friends of Iraq supports the Books to Iraq appeal.

Iraqis also face the burden of an enormous physical and psychological legacy of dictatorship, sanctions and war. Iraq was run by a megalomaniac and his astoundingly brutal family network in the Tikrit area. There was no honesty, competence or ability to speak one’s mind. Take the cabinet minister who responded to Saddam’s plea for an honest assessment and foolishly gave one: he was taken out, executed and his body was chopped to pieces before being presented to his colleagues for inspection.

That was the pattern throughout society for decades. Spies were everywhere. Repression was harsh. Sisters, wives and mothers would be raped to punish their men. Families disappeared. This legacy doesn’t disappear overnight.

We stayed in Iraqi Kurdistan which had been free of Saddam since its uprising in 1991 and its subsequent protection by the Anglo-American no-fly zone. I lost count of the number of times the British and American governments were thanked for liberating Iraq.

This part of Iraq has had longer to develop relatively decent, stable and progressive institutions and is generally secure thanks to police and armed forces that enjoy popular support. The relative peace is enforced by frequent roadblocks, armed guards at hotels, restaurants and obvious terrorist targets. I have never seen so many kalashnikovs in my life, but it works.

Chronic insecurity

But there is chronic insecurity in the rest of the country. Some 50 people a day are killed in terror attacks and counter-insurgency. Extremists have murdered over 500 teachers and lecturers who are seen by extremists as a great resource for stability and citizenship.

Iraqi Kurdish Communist leader Kamal Shaker – who was one of many Peshmerga fighters to retreat to the mountains and take up arms against Saddam – says that terrorists who target civilians are enemies of the people and that the real resistance are those who are building trade unions and reconstructing Iraq.

Their schools are overcrowded – sometimes 110 pupils in a class – and hundreds of schools are still mud buildings. Many spoke movingly of a continuing legacy of dominance and physical beatings in schools.

There is a desperate lack of decent housing. Water and electricity come and go. Petrol is often sold at the kerbside rather than in petrol stations – deeply ironic in such an oil-rich country. Roads are pot-holed and can change at a blink from tarmac to dirt tracks. Factories are idle or under-capacity.

Yet each part of Iraq has huge natural resources, including agriculture, minerals, oil and a potentially sophisticated workforce – whose second language is often English – and offers real potential for foreign investment.

Investment and jobs

It initially seemed odd that unions and others were asking us for investment but we soon understood that there are no prospects for unions without jobs and these cannot be generated internally, although there may be greater scope than some think for Keynesian job-creation schemes.

I was reminded of the old saying that there’s nothing worse than being exploited by a large multinational company, except not being exploited by a large multinational company. Iraq has a war-torn command-style economy and no indigenous capitalist class to fund such investment and technology transfers.

Another problem is that Iraq, like other oil-rich countries in the region, lacks a widespread personal and corporate tax regime. This limits the contract between state and citizen and is thought to be a necessary part of the long-term reconstruction of the nation. Foreign investment always has costs, such as a shake-out of workers, but a stronger Iraqi labour movement can protect workers by improving training and social security.

We saw the breathtaking beauty of Iraqi Kurdistan whose people endured pitiless efforts by Saddam to physically exterminate them. Nearly 200,000 people were murdered, most famously in the chemical attack on Halabja, but thousands of similar villages were bombarded by chemical weapons and razed to the ground.

We toured the Red House in Sulamani where hundreds of people were tortured, just one of many such centres throughout Iraq. Later, we had dinner with high officials who had survived the ordeal. You could see their crooked hands. They were disfigured after being suspended for hours from a ceiling hook with their hands tied behind their backs while guards pulled their bodies to dislocate their shoulders. They were shy about details because so many had been through the same process.

Chemical warfare

It’s said that the Iraqi Kurds have no friends but the mountains, from where their fighters have fought for decades. These same mountains could be a source of tourist revenue when the threat of terrorism recedes. There are similar tourism possibilities in the rest of Iraq.

Saddam’s chemical warfare has left a lingering legacy of increased cancers, leukaemia and genetic deformations but there is a lack specialist health facilities to deal with these problems in Iraqi Kurdistan, and little money to send patients abroad.

After decades of external aggression and internal repression Iraq has an above average number of orphans, widows and disabled people as well as deeply traumatised and mentally ill people. There is even an association for dwarfs in Iraqi Kurdistan – the result of chemically-induced congenital disease.

The one million strong trade union movement wants British trade unionists to help them stand on their own two feet and reconstruct Iraq. With its oil wealth, there is no reason why, over time, Iraq could not have the roads, homes, schools and jobs, like those available in many other oil-rich parts of the middle east, such as Dubai, which resembles an Arabian Los Angeles.

As labour movement representatives, we went to listen to Iraqi trade unionists who also have problems with the current Iraqi government. Iraqi trade union assets have been frozen by Decree 8750 of 8 August 2005 and by the maintenance of Saddam’s ban on public sector unions, the old law 150 passed in 1987. The private sector in Iraq is small and the ban on public sector organisation covers about 80 per cent of the workforce.

So unions cannot easily organise or recruit, produce newspapers, or carry out other activities that we take for granted. Union leaders have to use internet cafés. Iraqi ministers are seeking to dictate how the unions should organise and union leaders fear that this will ‘paralyse’ independent unions. The first target was the engineers’ union, who resisted the government rulebook, and the coming target is the lawyers’ union.

British influence

The British government should use its influence to overturn this ban and ministerial interference in unions, both of which totally contravene International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions as well as the Iraqi constitution. Democracy needs independent unions and democracy is the declared aim of the American and British governments.

The next issue is assistance. British trade unions have already done much. The Fire Brigades Union has sent fire fighting equipment and more is on its way. We also saw a UNISON sponsored ‘train the trainers’ session in Erbil which was just like any similar session in the UK apart from the language.

There are many links between our movements. During our visit, the IWF granted honorary union membership to former Derbyshire Labour MP Harry Barnes who did his national service in Iraq in the mid-50s. Barnes was strongly anti-war and has been a staunch advocate of the needs of the Iraqi labour movement.

We ended our trip by the memorial statue to the 98 Iraqi Kurdish civilians blown up by terrorists in Erbil in 2004. The inscription says ‘Freedom is not free’. Urgent material and moral assistance will do much to help the unions build freedom in a democratic and federal Iraq.

Gary Kent is director of Labour Friends of Iraq.