For Unionists, Iraq’s Oil War Rages On

The leader of Iraq’s oil union is being threatened with prison--again.

David Bacon

Oil rig workers in Iraq are legally barred from unionizing, but that hasn't stopped them for fighting for fair treatment from the multinationals who control the oil. (Photos by David Bacon.)

Many Iraqi oil work­ers thought the fall of Sad­dam Hus­sein would mean they would final­ly be free to orga­nize unions, and that their nation­al­ly owned indus­try would be devot­ed to financ­ing the recon­struc­tion of the coun­try. But the real­i­ty could not have been more dif­fer­ent. Ear­li­er this month, the head of the Iraqi Fed­er­a­tion of Oil Unions, Has­san Juma’a (below right), was hauled into a Bas­ra court­room and accused of orga­niz­ing strikes, a charge for which he could face prison time. The union he heads is still tech­ni­cal­ly ille­gal: Saddam’s ban on pub­lic-sec­tor unions was the sole Sad­dam-era dic­tate kept in place under the U.S. occu­pa­tion, and Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri Mali­ki has­n’t shown any inter­est in chang­ing it since most U.S. troops left.

Foreign corporations operating in Iraq have a long history of trying to bring in a workforce from outside the country. The oil union has led many fights since 2003 to force them to keep the native Iraqi workforce.

And the oil indus­try? The big multi­na­tion­al petro­le­um giants now run the nation’s fields. Between 2009 and 2010, the Mali­ki gov­ern­ment grant­ed con­tracts for devel­op­ing exist­ing fields and explor­ing new ones to 18 com­pa­nies, includ­ing Exxon­Mo­bil, Roy­al Dutch Shell, the Ital­ian Eni, Rus­si­a’s Gazprom and Lukoil, Malaysi­a’s Petronas and a part­ner­ship between BP and the Chi­nese Nation­al Petro­le­um Cor­po­ra­tion. When they start­ed, the U.S. mil­i­tary pro­vid­ed the ini­tial secu­ri­ty umbrel­la pro­tect­ing all of their field operations.

The Min­istry of Oil tech­ni­cal­ly still owns the oil, but func­tions more as the multi­na­tion­als’ adjunct, while strip­ping work­ers of their rights. Since 2003 the min­istry has denied the union its right to exist and retal­i­at­ed against its lead­ers and activists. As the oil cor­po­ra­tions rush in to lay claim to devel­op­ing fields, min­istry spokesman Assam Jihad told the Iraq Oil Report in 2010, Union­ists insti­gate the pub­lic against the plans of the oil min­istry to devel­op [Iraq’s] oil rich­es using for­eign development.”

In 2011, Has­san Juma’a and Fal­ih Abood, pres­i­dent and gen­er­al sec­re­tary of the Fed­er­a­tion of Oil Employ­ees of Iraq, were first sub­ject to legal action by the min­istry and threat­ened with arrest. Many of the union’s elect­ed offi­cers have been trans­ferred from jobs they’d held for years to remote loca­tions far from their fam­i­lies, in an effort to break up its struc­ture and pun­ish activists. The gov­ern­ment does­n’t want work­ers to have rights, because it wants peo­ple to be weak and at the mer­cy of employ­ers,” said Juma’a.

The repres­sion has been unsuc­cess­ful in sti­fling dis­sent, how­ev­er. This year has seen esca­la­tions in both work­ers protest­ing bro­ken promis­es of bet­ter wages and treat­ment, and in local farm­ers object­ing to the seizure of their land and the lack of jobs to replace their lost income.

In Feb­ru­ary hun­dreds of work­ers demon­strat­ed on three sep­a­rate occa­sions out­side the build­ing of the gov­ern­ment-run South Oil Com­pa­ny in Bas­ra, call­ing for its direc­tor and his aides to resign. The com­pa­ny, man­aged by the nation­al oil min­istry, promised to build hous­ing for work­ers, an urgent neces­si­ty in a province still recov­er­ing from war. Work­ers said they hadn’t been paid their nor­mal bonus­es for two years and accused the com­pa­ny of hir­ing tem­po­rary work­ers, and then keep­ing them in that sta­tus indef­i­nite­ly instead of giv­ing them per­ma­nent jobs. They also demand­ed bet­ter med­ical care, espe­cial­ly for those suf­fer­ing the effects of expo­sure to deplet­ed ura­ni­um. This heavy met­al was used exten­sive­ly in shells and oth­er muni­tions by U.S. forces, and war rem­nants are still piled high in neigh­bor­hoods and across the countryside.

In one of the largest protests, union mem­bers joined farm­ers in a demon­stra­tion at the West Qur­na 1 field, oper­at­ed by Exxon­Mo­bil. They demand­ed high­er pay­ment for land tak­en to devel­op the field, and for jobs cre­at­ed by oil devel­op­ment. Mohammed al-Traim, the sheikh of the Beni Man­sour tribe, told the Iraq Oil Report, We have become farm­ers with­out land.”

A des­per­ate situation

Farm­ing is the tra­di­tion­al occu­pa­tion for most fam­i­lies in south­ern Iraq, who have been cul­ti­vat­ing the soil there for hun­dreds of years. The Iraqi gov­ern­ment set up a com­mit­tee to com­pen­sate them when oil com­pa­nies moved in, but farm­ers accuse it of gross­ly under­valu­ing their land. Com­pen­sa­tion for one don­um (six-tenths of an acre) is about one mil­lion Iraqi dinars ($833),” Abdul Sheikh told the Iraqi Oil Report. But if we had the chance to grow toma­toes in that one don­um, we could make more than 5 mil­lion dinars.” Oth­ers were offered com­pen­sa­tion in a range from $80 to $1,250 per donum.

Mean­while, Exxon­Mo­bil pumps 450,000 bar­rels a day from a field with reserves esti­mat­ed at 8.7 bil­lion. Cur­rent crude oil prices hov­er at around $100 per bar­rel, giv­ing the val­ue of a day’s pro­duc­tion at the field of $45 million.

The com­pen­sa­tion lev­els might keep a fam­i­ly fed and alive for a few months. But then what? That dilem­ma fuels the demand for jobs, the source of ongo­ing con­flict since the occu­pa­tion start­ed – pit­ting work­ers and farm­ers against the gov­ern­ment and the oil com­pa­nies. For­eign cor­po­ra­tions oper­at­ing in Iraq have a long his­to­ry of try­ing to bring in a work­force from out­side the coun­try. The oil union has led many fights since 2003 to force them to keep the native Iraqi work­force, and to hire from the local population.

Yet unem­ploy­ment in Iraq con­tin­ues at lev­el unimag­in­able in the Unit­ed States. There has basi­cal­ly been no change in the unem­ploy­ment sit­u­a­tion since the occu­pa­tion start­ed,” said Qasim Hadi, who orga­nized Iraq’s Union of the Unem­ployed when the occu­pa­tion began, in a 2011 inter­view. There are more than 10 mil­lion unem­ployed peo­ple in Iraq – about 60 – 70 per­cent of the work­force.” Accord­ing to the unem­ployed union, gov­ern­ment unem­ploy­ment sta­tis­tics are arti­fi­cial­ly low because they don’t count many peo­ple. Women aren’t count­ed,” Hadi says, cit­ing just one exam­ple, because the gov­ern­ment says their hus­bands or fathers are respon­si­ble for sup­port­ing them.”

The Iraqi gov­ern­ment only admits to an unem­ploy­ment rate of 16 per­cent, and pays unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits to a quar­ter of them. Ben­e­fits are low, about $110 a month, and if there’s more than one unem­ployed per­son in the fam­i­ly, ben­e­fits are reduced.

Inter­na­tion­al outcry

At first, gov­ern­ment author­i­ties denied rumors that they would pun­ish work­ers involved in this February’s demon­stra­tions. We will not pun­ish any pro­test­ers and all their demands will be ful­filled,” announced Bas­ra provin­cial coun­cil head Sabah al-Bez­zouni. But after the largest of the Bas­ra demon­stra­tions this spring, on Feb­ru­ary 27, the Min­istry of Oil took action against the union orga­niz­ers. The Bas­ra court issued charges against Juma’a and gave him until April 7 to find a lawyer. Mean­while, al-Bez­zouni sought to take over the union’s role as the work­ers’ rep­re­sen­ta­tive in their griev­ances against the South Oil Company.

Labor unions in Europe and the Unit­ed States are protest­ing the threats against Juma’a and his union. In a let­ter to Mali­ki, they not­ed that eight oth­er union pro­test­ers had also been sum­moned to the oil min­istry to inves­ti­gate their role in recent demon­stra­tions in Bas­ra, where work­ers engaged in peace­ful protest to express their legit­i­mate demands.” The let­ter reviewed the long his­to­ry of the denial of work­ers rights since the begin­ning of the occu­pa­tion, espe­cial­ly the enforce­ment of Law 150, which bans unions in the pub­lic sector.

The Iraqi government’s con­tin­ued repres­sion of free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion and work­er rights, based on laws issued under a dic­ta­tor­ship, is in direct con­tra­dic­tion with the prin­ci­pals of democ­ra­cy and jus­tice that the Iraqi gov­ern­ment promis­es its peo­ple,” the unions wrote. The gov­ern­ment of Iraq should imme­di­ate­ly can­cel the orders issued by the Min­istry of Oil to union activists, includ­ing all trans­fer orders, rep­ri­mands and arbi­trary penal­ties against union activists. Charges against Has­san Juma’a Awad, and any oth­er work­ers who have had retal­ia­to­ry legal action tak­en against them, should be dropped.”

Signed by (among oth­ers) Britain’s huge pub­lic sec­tor union UNITE; the CGIL, Italy’s biggest labor fed­er­a­tion; the AFL-CIO and U.S. Labor Against the War in the Unit­ed States, the let­ter is still open for oth­er orga­ni­za­tions to sign at the web­site U.S. Labor Against the War.

David Bacon is a writer, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and for­mer union orga­niz­er. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Pol­i­cy Dri­ves Mex­i­can Migra­tion (2013), Ille­gal Peo­ple: How Glob­al­iza­tion Cre­ates Migra­tion and Crim­i­nal­izes Immi­grants (2008), Com­mu­ni­ties With­out Bor­ders (2006), and The Chil­dren of NAF­TA: Labor Wars on the US/​Mexico Bor­der (2004). His web­site is at dba​con​.igc​.org.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue