Labour delegation meets Iraqi trade unions

There is a Dwarfs’ Association in Iraqi Kurdistan. It seemed odd at first but Saddam’s actual use of weapons of mass destruction continues to wreak biological havoc and this Association combats the stigma. A recent article for Fortnight magazine.

Nearly 200,000 people died in Saddam’s genocidal campaign to exterminate Iraqi Kurds and there’s also an increased incidence of cancer and leukaemia but no clinics to cope with it or foreign exchange to buy medicines or send people abroad for treatment.

This part of Iraq has had more time to rebuild since Saddam’s forces withdrew after the Gulf War in 1991 when it was protected by Anglo-American jets until what everyone there calls “liberation” in 2003.

But the physical legacy will take time to repair. Power flickers on and off. One minute we were on reasonable roads and the next we hit dirt tracks. Petrol is dispensed from jerry cans at the roadside and petrol stations are rare, a standing insult given the country’s potential fabulous oil wealth. I was somewhat queasy when our driver used these breaks to light up and stretch his legs.

Schools are massively over-crowded. Factories are idle and conceal huge economic inactivity. We toured a cigarette factory with 600 employees but which produces nothing.

Everyone is eager for foreign investment because they don’t have a home-grown bourgeoisie, as the local Communist Party leader argued. We
initially baulked at this emphasis because we weren’t a trade mission but soon came to accept that unions without jobs are irrelevant.

I was reminded of the old saying that there is only one thing worse than being exploited by a multinational company – and that’s not being exploited…

External assistance to the unions and other independent groups can help empower them as strong social partners capable of doing deals with international capital to protect workers and the wider community.

No one pretends that this will be easy or that Iraq will somehow find a privileged dispensation in the globalised world order but it’s not rocket science – the more power to their elbow and the fewer rip-offs are possible.

They also made it clear that there are economic no-go zones – education, health and oil should remain in the public domain. They clearly want the foreign troops to go but immediate withdrawal is not a key issue, whatever some western leftists say.

We also saw the remnants of Saddam’s well-tested torture machine when we visited the Red House in Sulamani. Five thousand people died here
and thousands more were brutalised in what was just one of a series of secret police outposts throughout Iraq.

This one is a museum and the last resting place of rotting Soviet tanks and heavy machine guns. A former prisoner is the curator who showed us the still bloodied ropes, jibs and electrodes with which he and many of the ministers and union leaders we met had been terrorised.

None of them was keen to talk about their time inside because they feel it would be immodest given so many people suffered the same experience. Yet they are astonishingly cheerful and are seeking to contribute to building a federal Iraq, as is the Kurdistan Workers’ Union which hosted our trip and which works with the Iraqi Workers’ Federation and the huge Teachers’ Union. Together they now number nearly a million people, up from next to nothing in 2003.

We had a five hour summit meeting with union leaders from Basra, Baghdad and Babel. They started by conferring honorary membership on Harry Barnes, a former Labour MP who did his national service in Basra in the 50s and who became a strong advocate of labour rights in the post-Saddam Iraq.

We then talked turkey as they described how they had rebuilt the labour movement through all the usual tactics from bargaining to strikes and how they are determined to rebuild independent social and political activity, crushed by decades of fascism.

But a central problem is the Iraqi Government. They have retained Saddam’s ban on unions in the public sector which accounts for 80% of the old-style command economy. And last August ministers introduced Decree 8750 which froze their meagre assets and which union leaders fear is an effort to create sectarian client unions.

We will urge the international labour movement to throw its weight behind overturning the ban and the freeze and allowing the unions to be a bulwark of non-sectarianism. This means money as well as the TUC’s new campaign to encourage people to send in their old mobiles and chargers.

Some of us had opposed the invasions, others didn’t but we had come together for this gruelling but encouraging mission to find out what the unions want.

This trip to Iraq brought absolute clarity to me and others. We have a choice. We could bang on about the war but history will best judge it. In the meantime, we will miss a golden opportunity to help Iraqis democratise their country with an impact on the wider region if we don’t make solidarity the key theme.

We flew to and from Iraq via Dubai which is something like a Los Angeles in the desert with modern roads and buildings (as well as a disgruntled migrant workforce). There’s no reason why Iraq’s oil wealth shouldn’t allow it to enjoy the benefits of its natural resources, which previously fuelled a barbaric and aggressive totalitarianism.

The unions can add a decent social justice element to the mix but only if they can marginalise extremists who target union leaders and workers and if Grassroots Iraq receives external support.

Gary Kent travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan as part of a Labour Friends of Iraq delegation which was hosted by the Iraqi Kurdistan unions and funded by Britain’s biggest trade union, UNISON.

Gary Kent is a graduate of international relations. After spells in management in British Rail and the Co-Op he began work in parliament in 1987 where he was active for two decades on Anglo-Irish peace activity against terrorism and now as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which he has visited 27 times since 2006. He used to be a columnist for Fortnight Magazine and writes a regular column for the Kurdish Rudaw outlet and many other publications.