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Home   |   The Socialist 15 Dec - 4 Jan 2005   |   Join the Socialist Party

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Building a voice for Iraq's workers

Oil workers' union leader speaks to the socialist

HASSAN JUMA'A AWAD - president of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (previously known as the General Union of Oil Employees) spoke to Zena Awad of the socialist.

Can you tell us about the oil union's re-launch and what role it is playing in fighting the privatisation plans for Iraqi society and particularly for the oil industry?

"THE OIL union's re-launching played an important role during the first stages of the occupation. Iraqi workers had been forced to join trade unions set up by the Saddam regime. But when US troops invaded, we saw the need to re-found the oil union for a number of reasons.

Firstly because the US occupation's main aim, among others, is to get their hands on oil in the Middle East and prepare the ground for an economic occupation. Also, if oil workers were not organised in an oil union, the US leadership would not give them rights as we saw in (US governor of Iraq) Bremer's attacks on trade unionism.

The oil reserves are Iraq's main source of income and therefore crucial to Iraq's economy. This was clear from the start when troops invaded and destroyed schools and hospitals but guarded the oilfields. We felt the sham aims of the US occupation and started with only 20 oil workers initiating the union.

This was under an initial rule banning trade union activity. Recently Bremer had to change this in the face of Iraqi society's trade unionism. 11 days after the occupation started, we set up the union which has been consistently built ever since. We now organise 23,000 oil workers not just in Basra but across the south of Iraq.

We developed the union's organisational structures and waged an intense battle against the US administration on wages and workers' rights - demands which are unlikely to be met by the US administration, which only gives in when it faces strong pressure beyond its own strength.

We were surprised when, two months after the occupying troops entered Basra, American companies were suddenly entering our oil fields. Our main role was to stand up against the greedy oil companies while knowing that oil is the only thing which can give Iraqi living standards a lift after 35 years of oppression from a dictatorship originally sponsored by America.

We struck back against Kellogg Brown Root (KBR - a Halliburton subsidiary) in October 2003, forcing them out of the oilfields. Now we're fighting against privatisation of all oil refineries by American companies. We forbid the US administration and all those who favour privatisation of the oil refineries and other industries in Iraq as we believe that this is the return of colonisation in the region."

Privatisation threat

"WE FIGHT for the public ownership of industries according to the law passed in the 1970s. Until now the oil industry has worked as one national industry and Iraqis had a common knowledge of the country's rich natural resources. Iraqis are aware of that and also of the aims of US imperialism worldwide.

We feel that privatisation is damaging to the Iraqi economy, that it means private companies controlling public resources and wealth for their profit while the Iraqi people see very little of it. Many countries around the world have carried out privatisation but brought no material or social benefit for the ordinary citizen.

Privatisation has now developed further and the plans are clear. The propaganda in favour of these plans only started this year - before that, the US was busy with military occupation and the security situation. I have to say to the occupation forces that the US will face a battle much more fierce than when they entered Iraq as Iraqis then wanted to get rid of Saddam but now they see through US economic interests and hence the aim of the occupation.

We have put forward our position on this issue, and held the first conference ever to deal with this in Basra in May 2005. It was agreed that we hand in a statement to parliament saying we oppose any privatisation plans and any foreign troops entering our fields. We said that after the military occupation comes the economic one.

This first national meeting for the oil workers union prepared us for the future. One of our main tasks is to explain to people that privatisation means looting oil reserves and therefore running the refineries dry. Our second task is to show that we're waging a battle against privatisation of the oil industry and that they will face a strong opposition when they try and implement their privatisation plans.

Frankly, we're not in the most technologically developed industry and our equipment is in need of development. Nevertheless, we oppose this happening through privatisation, or even through sharing half with the enemy. We are the workers of Iraq and it is in our capacity to build and rebuild the refineries.

I personally think this would not cost much and every trade unionist in Basra, Nasiriyiah or the whole of Iraq would sacrifice to defend our public oil industry and against outside forces controlling what is the right of the Iraqi masses.

Many economists, even in Britain, paint a nice picture of privatisation, forgetting that Iraq's main income comes from oil and that if half of this is shared with private companies, this would be an attack not only on Iraqi workers but the whole of Iraqi society.

What form would public ownership take in your view and what is the role of workers in this?

"WORKERS THEMSELVES want to run their own industry. The proof for this is when they re-opened the oil refineries only two months after the troops invaded. This shows they have the capacity to manage production themselves without any interference. It was also shown by forcing KBR out - in fact not even allowing then into the fields in the first place.

After 35 years of repression, Iraqis now want to be in control of society. Also, when troops left the Gulf in 1991 the Iraqi oil workers, despite resources and trade unionism, did not reopen the refineries for a year after. As soon as the troops entered this time around, the workers wanted to take control. Therefore, we are on the side of all workers.

The US fears this. Instead of using the term 'privatisation', they now talk of a Production Sharing Agreement - something very new to Iraqis who are now told that we are sharing production and profit. In the end, it is privatisation with a different face and with longer-term contracts."

What about the merging of the oil unions in the last year - how are relations with other unions and federations?

"WE FOUND the oil industry's situation quite urgent and we only organised across three provinces. So we agreed we should expand across the oil industry because of the issues faced by oil workers and therefore the need to link up with other oil workers' unions.

Oil workers' working conditions, for instance exposure to gases and chemicals, are different to those faced by other workers. Also, oil workers are a skilled force in a specialised complex production.

We used to have over five federations in Iraq with no clear direction, so we decided from the start that we would build our own independent oil workers' union federation within which all oil workers can organise. We now have links with other oil workers' unions with the aim of affiliation; one of which is in Kirkuk - the province with Iraq's second biggest oil reserve after Basra.

Now with the new constitution giving local powers to regions, it is important to unite the oil workers across all of Iraq. We need an expanded union as the battle against the government will be more successful and at a higher level.

So we need to expand our organisation and organise on a national basis with a national structure and a national committee bringing together all the different oil refineries in Iraq. The change has not only been in the name but in the way we organise and the structures and make-up of the union.

Our union has been in a number of battles, one of which is when KBR's sub-companies tried divide and rule tactics, bringing in 1,200 workers from Asia who they wanted to use as scabs. This was opposed by all workers who could not accept this while four million Iraqis are unemployed. The battle was successful in reinstating 1,000 Iraqi workers."

How specifically do you think the occupation can be ended?

"FIRSTLY, WE call for the immediate unconditional withdrawal of all troops and for workers' control of society and industry. Some argue against this, fearing a civil war developing. Even if there will be sectarian tensions and divisions soon after the withdrawal, these problems will be solved by the Iraqis.

All these developments are because of the occupation and its divide and rule tactic since it wants no unity and no real stability. Sectarian problems were born out of the occupation. In places where people lived without tensions, the occupation forces created problems in order to demonstrate their role. It is easier to control a divided people.

We are part of Iraq's trade union movement. Many unions support our struggle because they see that if the oil industry is privatised, the others will follow. Our union has organised a solidarity strike with the Basra port workers against privatisation and defeated the Danish company Maersk.

We have differences with other trade unions but we always unite in the interest of Iraqi workers and to unite the trade union movement.

We want our union federation to be democratic so we believe we should have a conference of all oil workers' trade unions to exchange experiences from across Iraq. 75% of Iraqi workers are in the public sector so we hope that in the future this workforce will be united and successful in defeating the occupation and its economic plans."

Bosses' rate of return - 162%!

PRODUCTION SHARING Agreements (PSAs) are a pro-privatisation oil policy that could be adopted in Iraq after December's elections. A PSA would make sure that most of Iraq's oilfields - accounting for at least 64% of the country's oil reserves - should be owned, controlled and profited from by multinational oil companies.

A War on Want report Crude Designs: The rip-off of Iraq's oil wealth says that with oil priced at $40 per barrel, such a deal could lose Iraq anything from $74 billion to $194 billion compared with leaving oil development in public hands, over the 25-year-plus lifetime of the contracts.

That's at least twice and maybe seven times the current Iraqi government budget and it's only from the first 12 oilfields to be developed. The oil companies' rates of return from investing in Iraq would range from 42% to 162% - the industry's minimum target is usually around 12% return on investment.

It's big money and should be tempting though at present the total insecurity of Iraq is making the prospect seem less inviting for the giants of Big Oil.

Iraq survey shows hopes and fears

UP TO 70,000 civilians have died since the Iraq war officially ended in May 2003. Now there are, on average, 700 attacks by insurgent groups in Iraq each week. Along with attacks by US and other troops the lives of Iraq's workers and the poor are being put constantly at risk.

US imperialism claims that the 15 December elections will be a "turning point", bringing the situation back to normality. Many people share some of that slender hope, but like every other 'turning point' so far, this one is unlikely to bring any serious improvements to the lives of ordinary people.

Of course Bush and Blair will clutch at any straw that appears to boost their optimistic scenario for the future. One of these 'straws' is a recent Western survey of Iraqi views on their country's future.

While half the population (53% according to the survey) think Iraq's overall situation remains bad, most (69%) believe this will improve in the next year. However there were wide variations between different regions of the country.

Iraqis clearly see practical issues, such as whether they can get electricity in their homes, as paramount. They said security was their main worry. Most people wanted any new government that emerges to concentrate on improving security.

However on the basis of capitalism, the new government will prove incapable of meeting any of these basic demands. Imperialism's strategy for 'stabilising' Iraq has fomented and reinforced sectarian divisions which will continue after the elections.

The only hope for the future for ordinary Iraqis is the building of workers' unity in opposition to the occupation and around demands for security, jobs and a better life for Iraq's people.

One key element needs to be action to confiscate the oil wealth, currently being divided amongst the multinationals, and measures to allow the country's resources to be democratically owned and controlled by the working class.

Stop the War Coalition international peace conference

THE 1,000 participants at the Stop the War Coalition's international peace conference on Iraq on 10 December heard many impassioned speeches against the war and contributions from representatives of the US anti-war movement.

Ken Smith

The conference unanimously passed a resolution calling for the release of hostages in Iraq, including peace activist Norman Kember. It also called for the release of prisoners being held by occupation authorities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another statement called for an immediate end to the occupation and for international demonstrations to be held on 18-19 March 2006.

Some impassioned speeches came from those involved in the Military Families against the War movement in Britain and the USA. Former SAS soldier Ben Griffin, who left the army as a conscientious objector, said there are more British ex-servicemen working for private companies trying to get their hands on Iraq's resources than there are British soldiers in Iraq.

Kelly Dougherthy, who served for eight years in the National Guard in the Balkans and Iraq, said that on her ten-month tour of duty in Iraq most of her time was spent guarding Halliburton convoys. US vice-president Dick Cheney was an executive of Halliburton.

Some US soldiers who wanted to do more to help the Iraqi people had gone to an orphanage to take sweets and gifts for the children. But the soldiers came away asking themselves why they were carrying out US policies that were making these children orphans. Many soldiers see the futility of what they were doing in Iraq.

The conference's turnout showed the residual base that the anti-war movement in Britain has, although many participants registered in a personal capacity rather than representing organisations such as trade unions. It was more of a rally than a representative conference and opportunities for speakers from the floor were limited. So, unfortunately, there was no real chance of beginning a debate about what sort of strategy could advance the anti-war movement.

workers strike against Blairite cuts


Home   |   The Socialist 15 Dec - 4 Jan 2005   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Bookshop

In this issue

NHS in crisis

Huddersfield's big demo

Campaign for a new workers' party

Building a voice for Iraq's workers

Montreal conference - Little change on climate change

Ukraine's Orange revolution - one year on

Portuguese workers strike against Blairite cuts

Massive support for Irish Ferries' workers

Stop the job cuts

Confusion over pensions at NATFHE executive

Media giants attack journalists

Rail workers fight bosses' offensive


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