Interview with Abdullah Muhsin, London representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU)

Abdullah Muhsin has recently returned from a two week visit to Iraq with a trade union delegation from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, the Education International, the International Transport Workers? Federation, the AFL-CIO and the British TUC. Here he speaks to Alex Gordon, a member of the RMT who took part in a delegation of British trade unionists to Iraq in October 2003.


Alex Gordon (RMT): Abdullah can you tell us what are your impressions of the latest developments in the Iraqi labour movement since we were last there in October 2003?
Abdullah Muhsin (IFTU): Certainly, since my previous visit (5th October to 1st November, 2003) I found the appetite for building trade unions amongst Iraqi workers has grown even more evident. This was especially true at the Al Dawra Oil refinery in Baghdad where we were invited to attend a meeting on 17th February 2004. This was a pre-arranged open meeting for all the various branch committees of the Oil Workers? Union in the refinery, which have grown from 9 to 16 since we were last there together. The meeting was open to all trade union members to discuss latest developments in Iraq such as the labour code, wages and working conditions.
The international trade union delegation that accompanied me to the meeting was keen to put questions to the Iraqi oil workers and their trade union committee representatives. They asked particularly about their experiences in building their union; the process they had gone through for elections to trade union committees and whether it was democratic and transparent; the role of women in the union and in the leadership of the union.
The Oil workers raised a number of issues with the ICFTU delegation, especially to the stance of the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions? in relation to the former ?yellow union? of Saddam Hussein, the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU). The Oil workers were very angry that in the past the Arab trade union movement had not shown enough support and solidarity with genuine Iraqi trade unionists and as they put it, continues to try to give the discredited GFTU some form of fake legitimacy.
Ms P. Kamalam (the ICFTU Asian desk representative) told them: ?We refused to work in the past with the GFTU because it was under the control of the state. We wish to work with you (trade unionists of the independent Oil and Gas Workers? Union) and we shall meet with other Iraqi trade union groups so as to have a clear picture of the growth of unions in Iraq today.?
Ms Kamalam also asked Thaer Khatheeri, directly how he had become President of the Al Dawra refinery trade union committee? He explained: ?I became President in July 2003 through an open election of trade union representatives in all of the nine trade union committees that existed at that time in the Al Dawra refinery. Since then we have built the union with the addition of seven more trade union committees representing workers outside the refinery (such as the oil tanker drivers) but in the same industry.?
He explained that the major issue for their trade union apart from consolidation and building of the union organisation is to campaign for an increase in the low wages of Iraqi oil workers currently earning 69,000 Iraqi Dinars a month. The union is demanding a minimum wage of IrD 150,000 a month.
Another member of the ICFTU delegation asked about accidents in the workplace and whether there existed any compensation scheme or welfare support for injured workers. He was told by the trade union committee that many accidents have occurred to oil industry workers, most recently those resulting from the breakdown in security under the occupation. Oil tanker drivers are targets for criminal gangs and other saboteurs who attack workers causing deaths and injuries.
The Oil and Gas Workers? Union through the IFTU is in consultation with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Iraqi Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and representatives of Iraqi businesses and is demanding a Labour Law which will guarantee workers basic rights to employment, health & safety and legal compensation for injury at work.
AG: From the previous reports which we gave of the British trade union delegation to Baghdad in 2003, we know a little about the growth of new trade unions in the Iraqi capital. Can you tell us whether the picture is the same elsewhere in Iraq?
Abdullah Muhsin: The Railway Workers? Union held its national conference at the end of October 2003 with branches represented from Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Nasiriya, Hillah, Baji and Fallujah. They established at the Conference a national executive committee of 15 members which now has a permanent office at Baghdad Central Railway Station. Like the oil tanker drivers, their members have continued to be victims of criminal attacks, particularly against goods trains. The Railway Workers? Union is demanding that their members should be armed in order to protect themselves from these attacks. In addition they are calling for better conditions for workers to take food and rest in depots and train stations because of the very difficult and long hours worked by their members today.
On 20th February the ICFTU-led delegation divided up, some going north to Iraqi Kurdistan and the others who came with me to the south; Basra and Umm Qasr. In Basra the ICFTU met the executive of the Basra federation of the IFTU, its President Hussein F. Hussanii and the leaders of 10 trade unions in the Basra region including those for Mechanics, Construction, Transport, Oil, Railways, Dockers and Public Services; for workers in restaurants, hotels, hairdressers, public health and municipalities, water and cleaners. Each of these committees has a minimum of 7 members with two reserves.
In Umm Qasr which was taken over directly by the US and UK troops at the beginning of the war, USAID awarded the contract to repair, maintain and operate the port to Stevedoring Services of America (SSA). There is strong support for building independent trade unions amongst the dock workers in Umm Qasr. This was evident when the ICFTU went to Umm Qasr to meet the SSA?s representatives on the Port Authority; John Schaper and Steve Myrow.
Dockers gathered in front of the offices of the Port Administrators as soon as they heard the ICFTU delegation was visiting. According to the SSA representatives at the meeting, the former administrator of all the Iraqi Port Authorities, Abdul Razaq, appointed by the Occupation Authorities following the war, was unsympathetic to trade unions and it was he who was responsible for applying the 1987 Labour Law of Saddam Hussein to prevent independent dockers? unions from getting recognition.
The new Port Authority Director, Mahmood Saleh agreed to meet the ICFTU delegation and representatives of the IFTU Basra region. The meeting took place on 21st February at 19.30 at the main office of the Port Authorities, a massive imperial building dating from the British colonial period. Mr Saleh agreed at the meeting that trade unions should be free to organise in the docks and that this would enhance the process of building civil society and democracy. However, the US-appointed Port Authority Director said that in order to recognise trade unions their representatives should be democratically elected. The IFTU President of Basra region, Hussein F. Hussan, pointed out that he had been democratically elected by 10 trade union committees that between them represented tens of thousands of trade unionists. He further undertook to make the election of a recognised trade union port committee an urgent priority for the IFTU.
AG: This is very encouraging news. What actions would the IFTU like to see by trade unionists in Britain and elsewhere to assist their efforts to build democratic trade unionism in Iraq?
Abdullah Muhsin: As you may know although we have been working flat out to rebuild trade unions in Iraq, we have practically no resources. On 6th December 2003, US troops raided IFTU?s temporary headquarters (the Transport & Communication Union offices) and arrested 8 IFTU leaders who were subsequently released without charge. However the offices have been vandalised and closed down by the US troops and remain locked out of use. The IFTU currently has no permanent office premises for meetings or storage and its elected officials are unpaid. Apart from the generous donation of laptop computers by the British trade union movement we are in dire need of material resources; premises, financial assistance for travel, training and education.
The critical importance of the IFTU?s role in establishing a democratic society in Iraq has been underlined since my return this week, by the slaughter of innocent Iraqis in Baghdad and Karbala. This terrible mass murder will not deflect democratic forces such as the trade unions from building a new and secular society. The IFTU supports entirely Amnesty International?s strong condemnation of the bombings: “Deliberately attacking civilians can never be justified,” said Amnesty International. “Targeting worshippers during religious observances betrays complete contempt for the most fundamental principles of humanity. To the extent that these bombings are part of a widespread or systematic attack on the civilian population of Iraq in furtherance of an organization’s policy, they would constitute crimes against humanity. As such they would be among the most serious crimes under international law. These attacks must be stopped immediately and those responsible must be brought to justice.”