David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
Los Angeles Times, November 2003

BAGHDAD, IRAQ (10/14/03) -- For most Iraqis, oil was first a blessing, bringing a standard of living in the 1960s close to first-world levels. Then it was a curse, financing war, a brutal dictatorship, and drawing the covetous attention of foreign powers, most lately the US. Now, for many Iraqis, it’s a commodity their children sell by the roadside to passing cars, the way poor farmers in the San Joaquin Valley sell peaches and strawberries at their highway fruit stands.

Just outside the Al Daura refinery on the outskirts of Baghdad -- one of three such huge installations in Iraq -- kids hawk the product their fathers, who work inside, are given to compensate for wages averaging $60 a month. No one can live on this, and the plant manager knows it. To keep them working, he gives them oil.

While $60 is what they made before the war toppled Saddam Hussein, the occupation cut their income substantially. Workers formerly had bonuses, profit-sharing, and food and housing allowances. All were eliminated by US occupation authorities.

Nevertheless, a refinery job is a valuable one. Outside the gates, the country’s unemployed go hungry, and even homeless. Seventy percent of Iraqi workers have no jobs. While Congress may have appropriated $87 billion for “reconstruction,” Dr. Nuri Jafer, the deputy minister of Labor and Social Affairs admits he can find “no country willing to fund our plans” for the most minimal system of unemployment benefits. Reconstruction itself is invisible on the streets. Work may be proceeding on the pipelines and ports necessary to get oil exports restarted, but huge piles of the war’s rubble lie untouched in Baghdad streets.

US funding in Iraq seems destined to pay for two things -- an overwhelming military presence, and the transformation of the Iraqi economy. Both are key parts of a scheme to make the country attractive to foreign investors. In an October 8 phone press conference, Thomas Foley, director for private sector development for the Coalition Provisional Authority, announced a list of the first Iraqi state enterprises to be sold off, including cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country’s airline. Earlier, on September 19, the CPA published Order No. 39, which permits 100% foreign ownership of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allows repatriation of profits.

Iraqi workers view the prospect of the privatization of their workplaces with dread, fearing the selloff will bring massive layoffs. Al Daura’s manager, Detrala Beshab, predicted that with privatization “I’ll have to fire 1500 [of the refinery’s 3000] workers. In America when a company lays people off, there’s unemployment insurance, and they won’t die from hunger. If I dismiss employees now, I’m killing them and their families."

In plants like Al Daura, all over Iraq, workers are quickly organizing unions. They want better wages. They’re still often working 11 and 13 hour shifts (as they do at the refinery), but paid the same $60 a month. They have no safety shoes, goggles, masks or other protective gear. Most of all, they want a voice in the future of their jobs.

One union, the Workers Democratic Trade Union Federation, is being organized by labor activists driven underground or into exile by Saddam Hussein in 1977, when he banned real unions and executed many leaders. This federation has set up unions in the country’s main industries, including oil refineries like Al Daura. Basra already has a central labor council, and workers there have mounted protest demonstrations.

Another group, the Workers Unions and Councils, helped workers elect committees in factories like the State Leather Industry plant, the largest shoe factory in the Middle East, and the Mamoun Vegetable Oil enterprise. Both are candidates for privatization. This union also backed Baghdad’s Union of the Unemployed when it organized demonstrations in front of the CPA offices, demanding jobs and unemployment benefits.

Perhaps this labor activity worries Paul Bremer and the occupation authority. Whenever these new unions try to talk with the managers or the ministries that operate the plants, they’re told that a law passed by Saddam Hussein in 1987 is still being enforced by the CPA. This law says that workers in state-owned enterprises (where the majority of Iraqis work) have no right to form unions or to bargain a contract. The law violates at least two conventions of the International Labor Organization (#87 and #98). But on June 16, Bremer backed up this decree with another that goes even farther.

In an order called "Prohibited Activity," Section B bans anyone from "encouraging illegal actions or strikes or anything that will affect the security of any institution or factory, private or public." Those who violate the decree "will be taken as a prisoner of war by the Coalition Forces under Geneva Convention 49."

So here’s the economic plan for Iraq. First, the Iraqi Governing Council, under CPA mandate, passes decrees that permit foreign companies to own Iraqi businesses. Then, Tom Foley and the CPA set up a process in which the Iraqi government sells off its assets, including factories, mines, ports, and public services. At just one recent international conference ExxonMobil, Delta Airlines and the American Hospital Group all expressed interest, while Bechtel, Halliburton and Flour Corp. are among many already operating in Iraq under no-bid contracts.

These new owners can be expected to cut labor costs by laying off workers, so resistance at the worksite has been made illegal by laws banning unions and strikes. Meanwhile, US taxpayers are paying $87 billion for a military force to make the operation proceed smoothly.

Meanwhile the CPA is holding down the wages of Iraqi workers. One woman sewing shoes at the state leather factory said she was struggling to support six family members with the CPA-set emergency payment. "The prices of food and clothing are going up rapidly, and the salary is very low. We work hard, and I’ve been here ten years. I have to have a raise," she pleaded. Dathar Al-Kashab, president of the Al Daura refinery’s new union, explained that “when we talked to the manager, he told us he had to talk to the Oil Ministry, which had to talk to the Finance Ministry, which had to get permission from the coalition forces. The coalition forces control the finances, and our wages."

Iraq’s new labor movement is determined to stop the selloff of worksites, the loss of jobs, and the prohibition of unions and strikes. Majeed Sahib Kreem, general secretary of the union at the vegetable oil plant, declared that "a major reason for our existence is to eliminate the laws issued by the Baath regime."

Many US unions, looking at this ban on labor activity, hear echoes of threats made by the Bush administration during last fall’s longshore lockout, when it invoked the Taft-Hartley Act against the dockers union. Some, like the Los Angeles County Labor Federation, declared their opposition to the Iraq war even before it started, fearing neither US nor Iraqi workers would benefit from the enormous expenditures sought to finance it.

The desperate economic plight of the children of the Al Daura refinery gives credence to their concerns, and these kids are the lucky ones. Their parents, at least, are better off the those who lose their jobs, who are given nothing.


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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