Free trade unions are vital to Iraqi democracy and we should support them, argues Gary Kent

Iraqi trade union leaders who leave the country to attend international events could be arrested when they return if a new Diktat from part of the Iraqi government is enforced. It’s not in the same league as the murderous crimes of Saddam Hussein, but it’s still a monstrous attack on free trade unionism.

The Iraqi labour movement used to be the biggest between Europe and Australia and mobilised maybe half a million people at the May Day march in Baghdad in 1959. The population of Iraq was then about ten million which illustrates the tremendous social and political weight of the movement and its contemporary potential.

Saddam crushed the unions and civil society as a whole. In 1987 public sector unions were banned in a country dominated by the state. Only a few hundred exiled and clandestine activists were left when he was overthrown in 2003.

They have been rebuilding the movement ever since and have notched up many successes with hard work and moral and material support from the TUC and some British unions including Unison. Back in 2006 a Labour Friends of Iraq delegation travelled to the Kurdistan Region as guests of its trade unions. We saw how Unison’s assistance was building the capacity of the trade union movement.

In the main hotel in the capital, Erbil we met 22 leaders of different trade unions who had come from all over Iraq to meet us for a summit. They detailed their history and hopes and asked us to “help us stand on our two feet.”

The British labour movement was then and remains bitterly divided over the military intervention in 2003 but we have argued that those differences can be parked in favour of helping our comrades in Iraq.

The priority is to overturn Saddam’s laws and state interference in internal union affairs. The main Iraqi federations have been campaigning for a new Labour Law which would set the unions free. Together with the TUC and other national and global centres, the Kurdistan Workers Union and the General Federation of Iraqi Workers have launched a campaign for labour rights. They had been having some success and won the personal backing of Iraqi President Talabani.

Earlier in the year, the Labour and Social Affairs Minister published a draft law which went in the right direction. However, in May the hardline Civil Society Minister announced a new approach which leaves the ban on public sector unions in place and which prohibits all travel by trade union delegations to international meetings or conferences without approval and presumably with the threat of legal sanctions if disobeyed.

The conflict between the two ministerial approaches has been amplified by the power vacuum in Baghdad as different parties and slates very slowly move towards some form of accommodation and coalition. The coalition in the UK was formed in five days. It may be nearer five months before a coalition is formed in Baghdad and the logjam of legislation, including a decent labour law, can be broken.

This is an opportunity to maximise support for the Iraqi labour movement and to help Iraqis build a democratic, pluralist and federal settlement.

Iraq’s non-sectarian unions bring people together despite sharp tensions between different parts of the country. They also emphasise the need for women’s involvement in public affairs. This stands out in the Middle East where many unions are little more than state fronts and male dominated.

Iraq is a rich country and will become more and more prosperous. It is possible that Iraq will become the world’s largest oil and gas producer. A strong labour movement can spread the benefits of Iraq’s wealth and help ensure that Iraq does not follow or rather revert to that failed pattern of repression. But that means that the unions have to be free and independent. Their cause should be embraced by all.

As a contribution, LFIQ Joint President Dave Anderson (himself a former Unison President) is tabling a Commons motion to mobilise MPs. A strong showing for the motion will be picked up in Iraq and add to the pressure for change.

Gary Kent is Director of Labour Friends of Iraq.

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