Iraqi union crackdown is a return to days of Saddam

LFIQ Joint President Dave Anderson MP urges support for the Iraqi labour movement
The position of trade unions has deteriorated significantly in Iraq. Unions in the electricity sector have been banned in a move that echoes Saddam Husseins old ways. The Iraqi police raided and shut down trade union offices following a draconian ministerial decree.
The order, issued on 20 July, “prohibits all trade union activities at the [electricity] ministry and its departments and sites”. It orders the police “to close all trade union offices and bases and to take control of the union’s assets, properties and documents, furniture and computers”. It also instructs the ministry to take legal action against trade union officials under anti-terrorism laws.
This decree follows an earlier one that means that Iraqi trade unionists who travel abroad to international events could face jail when they return.
I have tabled several commons motions alerting MPs and others to these developments and have joined forces with Tony Baldry, the chairman of Conservative Friends of Iraq. Our joint motion recalls the near-liquidation of a once strong and non-sectarian trade union movement by the dictatorial regime of Saddam and salutes those who have devoted themselves to rebuilding a labour movement in Iraq. It congratulates the TUC and others for their important moral and material support for the Iraqi unions. We believe that the right to free association is a key element of a vibrant democracy and social justice, and back a labour code that would enshrine such rights.
We join the International Trade Union Confederation in criticising the Iraqi ministerial decision to prohibit all travel by trade union delegations to international meetings or conferences without official approval.
I have directly raised labour rights in Baghdad with the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his party colleagues, and I have also tabled parliamentary questions encouraging the British government to lobby for free unions, which the previous Labour government often did.
A cross-party approach is necessary in exposing this scandalous attack on free trade unionism in a country with a proud and long tradition of labour movement activity. The Iraqi movement was once the biggest between Europe and Australia. In 1959 the May Day march in Baghdad brought together at least half a million people out of a population of about 10 million.
Saddam’s Ba’athist dictatorship liquidated the movement and banned public-sector unions in a country dominated by the public sector. Iraqi activists have been rebuilding the movement since Saddam’s overthrow, from a base of just a few hundred to many hundreds of thousands.
Iraq’s non-sectarian unions have the ability to bring working people together despite sharp tensions between different parts of the country. They also emphasise the need for women’s involvement in public affairs.
Their brave and hard work has been complemented by moral and material support from the TUC and British unions including Unison. In 2006 a Labour Friends of Iraq delegation, including myself, met 22 union leaders who had come from all over Iraq for a summit with us in Kurdistan. They outlined their hopes and asked us “to help us stand on our two feet”.
The British labour movement remains divided over the military intervention in 2003 but those differences can be parked in favour of helping the unions, women’s groups and other civil society bodies in Iraq.
The main priority is to persuade the new Iraqi government, when it is finally formed, to overturn Saddam’s laws and end meddling in internal union affairs. Together with the TUC and other national and global union federations, the Kurdistan United Workers’ Union and the General Federation of Iraqi Workers have launched a campaign for labour rights. This is also personally backed by President Talabani.
Earlier this year, the Iraqi labour minister published a draft law that went in the right direction. However, in May the hardline civil society minister announced a new approach that keeps the public-sector union ban. It also prohibits travel by trade union delegations to international meetings or conferences without approval.
The conflict between the two ministers’ approaches has been amplified by the power vacuum in Baghdad as the parties move at a snail’s pace to form a new coalition.
This is an opportunity to maximise support for the Iraqi labour movement. The basis of liberal democracy is not just representative government but also a vibrant civil society.
Iraq is a rich country and will become more and more prosperous. It may become the world’s largest oil and gas producer. Experience elsewhere in the Middle East shows that such wealth can be hoarded by autocratic elites with a well-oiled military and security apparatus but without much benefit for working people or civil society.
A strong trade union movement in Iraq could help ensure that Iraq does not follow or rather revert to that pattern. It could make sure that social justice in health, education and pensions are part of the new Iraq. This can help Iraq provide a positive example to other countries.
But that means Iraqi unions have to be free and independent. This cause should be taken up by all. A decent democracy in Iraq is in everyone’s interests.