With the world’s eyes on the problems facing an Arab Spring for Libya, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain, a fast moving crisis brewing in Iraq is in danger of slipping off the radar. As one of the region’s elected democracies, recent protests in Iraq have been about the pace of reform within the political system rather than a challenge to the legitimacy of the government, but with a recent dramatic crackdown on trade unions in the county, the country seems to be moving very much in the wrong direction.
The cabinet in Iraq is something of a carve up, with the governing coalition’s important minority faction the Sadrist party (the followers of the Islamist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr) holding sway over a number of departments, including the Ministry of Labour. It seems the Sadrists are keen to use their position to exert influence wherever possible, and to that end have staged something of a civil society coup by taking over the country’s independent labour movement.
Three weeks ago, the Labour Minister issued a decree, immediately derecognising the national union federation, the GFIW, and instead appointing a committee of officials (unsurprisingly largely drawn from the ranks of the Sadrists) to take control of unions’ funds, offices, and the running of upcoming union elections.
Unions in Iraq have been used to having things very difficult, with neither the American governing forces or the subsequent elected governments doing anything to remove Saddam’s harsh labour laws. Now though they’ve moved from being harshly restricted to being written out altogether.
Committee officials started turning up at union offices late last week, backed by the police and military, to take possession of them, and now, all union resources in the country are in government hands.
This hasn’t gone unprotested inside Iraq – even inside the government. The Minister for Civil Society (an appointment of another coalition partner, the Kurdistan Alliance) took the unusual step of issuing a public statement yesterday, condemning the Ministry of Labour decree, and found himself in turn criticised publicly for it by the Sadrists.
With such visible splits inside the government, this is an important time for international pressure on Iraq to rescind the decree. The timing is also important, ahead of ILO governing body talks, where union delegates are proposing a veto on the Iraqi delegation.
LabourStart have an online action up (please sign!), to let union members around the world express solidarity with our colleagues in Iraq, and lobby the government to change course.
It’s vitally important that they do. Unions have had a difficult ride in Iraq thanks partly to the fact that they’re one of the only institutions which sit outside of religious or ethnic divisions, bringing together workers from any background in a country where much of civil society seeks to segregate rather than unite. If Iraq is to have anything like a peaceful and prosperous future, it needs to involve unions free to organise themselves, not just a workplace branch of the Sadrist movement.