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Interview: Iraq’s Union of the Unemployed

The sensation caused by the fights of the past weeks and the rhetoric about the deaths and kidnapping of Western guards and journalists are taking our minds away from the economic colonisation of Iraq and the increasingly dramatic life conditions of millions of Iraqis. While contracts for reconstruction proliferate, nothing has been done for those without a job or any subsidy, pension or health care. Even those with a job haven't received a salary for months.

May 1, 2004
4 min read

Among more than 200 associations created in Iraq during the past year, there is one lay and independent organisation, with its origins in a clandestine left movement which existed under Saddam, that is now challenging the Anglo-American authority. It stands for the rights of the unemployed in Iraq – almost the entire female and male workforce, 10 million out of 25 million inhabitants. Such are the side effects of the massive privatisation imposed by the occupation forces in their aim to deregulate an essentially state-ruled economy. Although it already has 300,000 members, the UUI (Union of the Unemployed in Iraq) is considered illegal by the coalition and by the provisional government, who, at the same time, recognise other associations less inclined to protest and more apt to cooperate. Aso Jabbar, the UUI representative in Europe, tells Red Pepper about his union’s fight for real democracy in the country and about the occupation forces’ attempts to control the rising Iraqi union movement.

What is your union’s position and role in the fight against occupation?

We are openly against the occupation but we are not part of the armed resistance. We are distant from the Islamic political groups that control the resistance. Their political programme is linked to the conservative Iraqi tradition and they are not interested in the improvement of people’s life conditions. We struggle directly – together with the other movements (of workers, progressive women and students) – to defend our rights and to establish a civil, lay, secular society. Our aim is to guarantee to our people safety, real social and political liberties, and the end of poverty created by wars, the regime and the embargo. In this phase of the occupation, our union’s representatives are fighting mainly to avoid the exploitation of Iraqi workers in the reconstruction work which is ruled by Western companies and military forces. The UUI is helping NGOs deliver and distribute aid and medicine to families and people hit by the attacks.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, different unions have been created in Iraq. Yours has a wide and popular support but is considered illegal by the provisional government, although it recognises other unions. What is the basis for this discrimination against the UUI?

The democratisation policy in Iraq proclaimed by the Anglo-American authorities also provides for the control of unions. Through the allocation of funds – more than $5m has been handled by the American confederation Afl-Cio for this purpose – the US and UK say that they want to reconstruct the union movement in our country. But this money might be given only to the associations that are closer to the provisional government, like IFTU (Iraqi Free Trade Unions). Composed mainly of old nationalists and the only union recognised by the coalition, IFTU is also the only candidate to have been accepted as a member of the international labour union confederation and to be recognised by all the other main labour federations, like the European TUC. But IFTU doesn’t seem to act as a real union, they don’t fight – like we do – for aid and subsidies for the poorest families. They are not so keen on the enshrinement in law of rights which are still denied, ranging from free association to the right to strike. Furthermore, their protest action is nearly non-existent; they say they are against foreign exploitation of our natural resources but seem more interested in helping foreign firms to reconstruct rather than defend workers’ rights. However, the fact that they are recognised by the new government is forcing many Iraqis to join them if they want a job.

UUI asked for affiliation to the international confederation (ICFTU) and the support of Arabic Unions (ICATU), and you also appealed to the International labour organisation (ILO) to have a real labour code. What answers did you get?

Apart from promises and good intentions, the international union movement hasn’t answered us yet. We are waiting for the ILO to take up a position against the violations denounced by us, by starting an inquiry into the Iraqi situation. But the ILO is an agency of the UN, which has showed it has no real power in Iraq. Therefore, until the occupation forces are replaced by UN forces, there can’t be any real improvement in civil, human and workers’ rights in Iraq. As far as the Arabic confederation ICATU is concerned, its official position is neutral but in reality the response changes according to the member country. For example, we are fully supported by the Lebanese Union, but others, such as Syria, Egypt or Libya have hesitations, since they fear political consequences for their governments.

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