Iraqi Workers Threaten General Strike And Armed Resistance;

Iraqi Workers Win

By Ewa Jasiewicz. Occupation Watch, Baghdad

Iraqi worker representatives from the country's energy sector met last week to discuss the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) imposition of low wages upon public sector workers in the country.

In early September, the CPA designed, and Paul Bremer the Third signed, Order 30 on Salaries and Employment Conditions, which cancelled all previous state subsidies for public sector workers such as family, housing, location, and risk benefits. Iraqi workers had relied on these subsidies in order to survive their pittance dictatorship wages. Instead, the CPA imposed a new 10 step, 13 level salary table which sets the country's minimum monthly wage at 69,000 Dinar ($40) per month. This is less than half of the recommended salary of a sweatshop worker in one of neighbouring Iran's Free Trade Zones.  The highest wage is a Super A Step 10 3 million Dinar ($1500) currently being paid to governors and high-level ministry staff.

The new wage table replaces emergency payments of $60, $100, $120, $220 and $280 per month. For any workers receiving the new CPA minimum wage, this means their income will almost be slashed in half.

The vast majority of public sector workers are still being paid in Dollars although according to the dollar's strength, the payment is varied from Dinars to Dollars, with workers being undercut by 20,000 Dinar ($10) at a time.

Dock workers and oil workers in the country's industrial heartland governate of Basra have had their wages converted directly into dinars after having been paid in dollars, three times over the past 5 months. $60 became 60,000 Dinar or 100,000 in some cases, when the appropriate wage should have been 120,000. The undercut caused walk-outs and riots Basra-wide.

Occupation Watch interviewed workers and trade unionists in Basra on their conditions and organising. The response from Iraqi Port Authority workers, Southern Oil Company Workers, Basra Oil Company Workers, Electricity Plant Workers and Transport Union representatives was that they needed a rise. Most workers we spoke to were receiving $60 or $120 monthly wages, with those who had put in 10 years service in their workplace getting paid in many cases as much as those with just three years experience.

Market prices, for basic foodstuffs, have almost doubled in some parts of Iraq, the price of a kilo of onions rising from 250 dinar to 750 in Basra, and apples going up by a third. Ration card rice was cut also cut three months ago, say mother and wives, still struggling to make ends meet.  Fruit is too expensive to barely ever be seen in family homes in Basra's poorest areas such as Haiyania and Jhoomouria, where I have been living for the past month with trade unionists and their families.

Hayania is the hood where even locals never dare to tread; say you’re going there and eyebrows rise in horror.  It’s a place where fly-swarmed piles of rubbish fester in the streets uncollected, the drainage system hasn't been changed since the basic concrete tenement houses, now crumbling slowly, were built in the 70s.  Nostril-grazing sewage flows freely in open gutters, between crammed homes, all guesting cockroaches, mice, rats and the ubiquitous swarms of silent black flies.

Despite working most of their lives, these activists and fathers still can't afford to repair their slum housing, buy new clothes or articles when they need them, buy another heater as the night winter cold creeps over their homes, buy any new kitchen equipment. 90% of their money goes on food for the family.

The CPA administered ration (previously supervised by the UN's World Food Programme) is what most Iraqi families still survive on. The ration , worked out at 250 ID (12c) per person, per month, consists of rice, flour, pulses, cooking oil, tea, sugar, and fluctuating amounts of powdered milk. Without the ration, families simply wouldn’t survive.  As it is, malnutrition and anemia are rife.  Eight hundred thousand children under five years old are chronically malnourished, according to a 2000 report jointly issued by the U.N., World Food Program and World Health Organization (although from what I have personally seen in my six months here, I'd triple that number). In addition, according to the 2002 UNICEF country statistics, malnutrition and anemia in pregnant women has caused high infant mortality rates with approximately 130 in 1,000 children dying before they reach the age of five.

Basra residents rioted for three days in August over fuel price-hikes, including that of cooking gas, which soared from its pre-war 250 ID, past its post war 1,500 straight up to 12,000 per canister.  Protestors, holding banners saying: 'Iraq - the country of oil with no fuel'; 'Iraq - the country of Oil - where is the fuel?' fist-fought British troops, trashed shops and torched cars over the persistence of former high ranking Baathists in management and administration positions, oil theft on the road to Kuwait, and unaffordable petrol and gas. A gas canister now costs a still inflated 4000 ID. Given that many Iraqi families use their gas-stoves to heat water for washing (and that the average Iraqi family living in one household is 8-12 member strong)the high price is a drain on any income.

Southern Oil Company trade union rep Faleh Khali Chiyid at North Rumeilla crude oil pumping station told us a committee was formed containing administration and union members to discuss the new CPA wage table and a meeting was held for two days.  'We tried our hardest to push everything forward but couldn't raise the lowest wage grade any higher than 6,000 ID.  So, we decided to refuse the entire table'.  He went on to explain that trade unionists were concerned about the interests of all the workers, even management and engineers as they feel they too are not getting enough.  A chief engineer with 12 years experience can expect to earn 246,000 ID per month ($120 or $30 per week).  A chief engineer who has worked for over 30 years gets the same level of pay after 30 years that an administration official would come in on their first day in a government ministry.

Rejecting the CPA pay scale, SOC trade unionists have designed their own based on current market prices and taking into account the level of risk, responsibility, years of service and location involved in the job.  'For instance' explains Hassan Juma, head of the Southern Oil Company Union, 'An experienced technician working in the middle of the desert, cannot be expected to receive the same pay as someone of the same level experience working in an air conditioned office'. Hassan himself has ploughed 31 years of his life into SOC and earns just 390,000 ID per month ($180 or $45 per week). And he wants a rise.

'They are fools if they thought that because we were getting 3000 ID per month before that we'll be happy with this system', he states bluntly.

The trade unionists analyzed the pay scale and saw that there were approximately three years service between each step. They had no problem with the top levels of payment in the CPA scale, set from 3m ID ($1500) maximum (Super A Step 10) to 444,000 ID ($220)(Grade 3, Step 1) minimum. And Grade 1 740,00 ID - 920,000 ($320 to $460), the wage remit a councilor, manager or field expert could expect to receive. And Grades 3 and 2 444,000 ID ($220) to 713,000 ($355) dealing up the income a senior engineer or supervisor can earn. According to the SOC Union this is 'fair enough'. But from Grade 4, step 1, 342,000 ID ($160) downwards to Grade 11, Step 1's 69,000 ($40) was definitely not.

All in all there are 130 different set wages for Iraqi public sector workers. Under the old emergency pay scale, an engineer on step 4 with five years experience would be getting 342,000 or so ID ($160). Under the new pay scale, he would be positioned on step 5 on 264,000 ($130), with a cutback of $30 - a week’s wages for some and a big difference for a big family.

For the SOC Union, the CPA table cuts workers wages, has too many steps, doesn’t take into account the rising price of fuel, food, clothing, medicine (rising since privatization of state pharmaceuticals company Kimidia) and the axing of all previous state employee benefits. The SOC table will set the minimum wage at 155,000 ID (approx. $85), more than tripling the current decreed national minimum, and has cut out 3 grades and at least 30 steps.

Workers are refusing occupation administration dictates and autonomously giving themselves the raise they need to live a decent life.

'We told them (SOC workers) to start saving their money in preparation for if the ministry doesn't accept the wage-scale. We thought the Ministry might respond to our refusal and our demands by withholding our wages', explained Faleh. However, the SOC Union was prepared to escalate the struggle.

'If the ministry refuses to pay our new table, all of the refineries, the power plants and crude oil pumping stations will stop. And no one from the administration will be able to interfere', told us Faleh.  The threat of a total shut down of Iraq was however, more of a shock-tactic according to Hassan Jum'a who reasoned, 'We won't shut down everything, there are humanitarian needs that need to be met, water purification plants, hospitals, these facilities must be kept going and we want the SOC to keep going too. But, what we will have a total shut down of, is exports'. And the expected response to that?  

'One of our assumptions is that soldiers will occupy the pumps. If they do, we will fight them. We will resist them with force. And we will join the armed resistance'.

Unsurprisingly, the threat of a general oil strike in Iraq's biggest oil company and one of only two still functioning and shipping oil to market, plus thousands of radical oil workers joining the armed resistance, caused some alarm at CPA-Governing Council levels and prompted the Minister of Oil himself came down to hold talks with the Union.

The result was that until the new wage table can be agreed, through negotiation, between the Ministry of Finance and the union, the old sparse-step CPA emergency payment system (starting at $60 per month rather than the risible $40) will replace the 130-step CPA dictated one.

No set time limit has been agreed for the negotiation of the new table but the SOC union describes the move as co-operative and is confident that a new, reasonable, livable, just wage-system, which they have independently designed, can be implemented. The results of this struggle will be far reaching for all Iraqi public sector workers, all of whom stood in solidarity with the SOC Union catalyzed wage table refusal and strike threat.

With this victory for worker autonomy, the CPA has been dealt a bloody nose and the Ministries of Finance and Oil given a wake-up call as to who holds the real power in Iraq.

To quote Hassan Jum'a 'We are in control of this country'.

And the action, function and position of SOC workers has showed this to be the case.

Resistance to the occupation's aims: slave wages, privatisation and all the lay-offs and casualisation and atomisation of the workforce this could mean, and mass profiteering from Iraqi oil resources, is manifesting itself in more ways and means than just the daily IED, missile and machinegun attacks on occupation convoys and bases.

Iraqi people standing up for themselves, their families and their communities and striking the empire back where it really hurts – in its' pocket-book, in its' corporate paychecks - (spilled young US blood not being reason enough) is an expression of a growing generalised, social, resistance to the occupation.

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