Iraqi labour movement makes global debut with tough task ahead
Asia – AFP Thu, Dec 09, 2004
By Shingo Ito
BUILDING A GLOBAL UNION MOVEMENT FOR THE FUTURE
MIYAZAKI , JAPAN
5 – 10 DECEMBER 2004
INTERNATIONAL CONFEDERATION OF FREE TRADE UNIONS
Iraqi labour unions making their global debut at a conference in Japan are seeking tips on how to make workers aware of rights suppressed for years by Saddam Hussein.
Five trade union leaders from Iraq attended the 18th World Congress of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which began on Sunday in the south-western resort city of Miyazaki.
It was the first-ever appearance of Iraqi organised labour at a congress of ICFTU, which meets every four years. Saddam allowed only a government-run union and persecuted the underground labour movement.
Since the collapse of the regime, at least 10 independent trade unions have been set up in Iraq.
“Now, we are working very hard to establish a democratic trade union to bring together all Iraqis no matter what their background, ethnicity and religions are,” said Hadi Salih, international secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, based in Baghdad.
The 56-year-old former printing worker, a founding member when the IFTU was formed in May last year, was sentenced to death in 1969 for his labour activism.
After five years in jail, Mr Salih escaped the gallows when his sentence was commuted. He became a political refugee in Sweden but rushed back to Baghdad shortly after the war began in a bid to rekindle the labour movement.
“The biggest struggle at this time is to educate members and leaders on real, democratic work and the nature of trade unions,” said Mr Salih, whose union has about 300,000 members in the sectors of transportation, printing, construction, oil, electricity, railways and food production.
“We are definitely interested in global support for labour education and training of members and leaders because real trade union work was absent in Iraq for the past 35 years,” he said.
Mon Dec 6, 3:50 AM ET – Hadi Salih, international secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, speaks to a reporter at the 18th World Congress of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). It was the first appearance of Iraqi organised labour at an ICFTU congress(AFP/Shingo Ito)
Jutiar Noori Abdulla, a former carpenter who is president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Workers Syndicate Union, said:
“Independent trade unions can only grow in a land of democracy and in open atmosphere, not in a closed society.” His union has 235,000 members, a third of them women.
Abdulla said his participation at the conference in Japan was a big step but the Iraqi labour movement needed time.
“It’s a good beginning. But it’s a long road,” Abdulla said with a sigh.
The ICFTU has already sent a mission to Baghdad to observe labour conditions and activities of the newly-born trade unions, while inviting union leaders to Jordan for a training programme.
“We are laying foundations for the future,” ICFTU general secretary Guy Ryder told a news conference.
“When some type of normality returns to Iraq in security and economic terms, we hope that from the foundations, we can build lasting and strong trade unions,” Ryder said.
Iraqi unions are also faced with other problems such as low funding and sour relations with authorities, including US forces.
“We are beginning procedures in collecting dues from our members, but of course it’s very difficult,” Salih said.
He said Iraqi and US forces arrested eight members of his union last year for staging a peaceful rally against the occupation.
“War does not serve the people of Iraq. Occupation doesn’t help democracy,” Salih said.
Salih voiced optimism that the labour movement in Iraq could play a role as it did in Japan, where trade unions were key in the country’s stunning economic comeback after the devastation of war.
“The labour movement in Japan has been fighting for the future of Japan ever since the end of World War II, and they are living this future today and tomorrow,” he said.
“If they can do it, we can too,” he said. “There is no reason why we can’t fight for the future of Iraq. That’s why I am enthusiastic.”