For Unionists, Iraq’s Oil War Rages On

Source: In These Times

Many Iraqi oil workers thought the fall of Saddam Hussein would mean they would finally be free to organize unions, and that their nationally owned industry would be devoted to financing the reconstruction of the country. But the reality could not have been more different. Earlier this month, the head of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, Hassan Juma’a (below right), was hauled into a Basra courtroom and accused of organizing strikes, a charge for which he could face prison time. The union he heads is still technically illegal: Saddam’s ban on public-sector unions was the sole Saddam-era dictate kept in place under the U.S. occupation, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki hasn’t shown any interest in changing it since most U.S. troops left.

And the oil industry? The big multinational petroleum giants now run the nation’s fields. Between 2009 and 2010, the Maliki government granted contracts for developing existing fields and exploring new ones to 18 companies, including ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, the Italian Eni, Russia’s Gazprom and Lukoil, Malaysia’s Petronas and a partnership between BP and the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation. When they started, the U.S. military provided the initial security umbrella protecting all of their field operations.

The Ministry of Oil technically still owns the oil, but functions more as the multinationals’ adjunct, while stripping workers of their rights. Since 2003 the ministry has denied the union its right to exist and retaliated against its leaders and activists. As the oil corporations rush in to lay claim to developing fields, ministry spokesman Assam Jihad told the Iraq Oil Report in 2010, “Unionists instigate the public against the plans of the oil ministry to develop [Iraq’s] oil riches using foreign development.”

In 2011, Hassan Juma’a and Falih Abood, president and general secretary of the Federation of Oil Employees of Iraq, were first subject to legal action by the ministry and threatened with arrest. Many of the union’s elected officers have been transferred from jobs they’d held for years to remote locations far from their families, in an effort to break up its structure and punish activists. “The government doesn’t want workers to have rights, because it wants people to be weak and at the mercy of employers,” said Juma’a.

The repression has been unsuccessful in stifling dissent, however. This year has seen escalations in both workers protesting broken promises of better wages and treatment, and in local farmers objecting to the seizure of their land and the lack of jobs to replace their lost income.

In February hundreds of workers demonstrated on three separate occasions outside the building of the government-run South Oil Company in Basra, calling for its director and his aides to resign. The company, managed by the national oil ministry, promised to build housing for workers, an urgent necessity in a province still recovering from war. Workers said they hadn’t been paid their normal bonuses for two years and accused the company of hiring temporary workers, and then keeping them in that status indefinitely instead of giving them permanent jobs. They also demanded better medical care, especially for those suffering the effects of exposure to depleted uranium. This heavy metal was used extensively in shells and other munitions by U.S. forces, and war remnants are still piled high in neighborhoods and across the countryside.

In one of the largest protests, union members joined farmers in a demonstration at the West Qurna 1 field, operated by ExxonMobil. They demanded higher payment for land taken to develop the field, and for jobs created by oil development. Mohammed al-Traim, the sheikh of the Beni Mansour tribe, told the Iraq Oil Report, “We have become farmers without land.”

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