August 30, 2006
Not sure who to support in the Middle East? As usual, solidarity is complicated – especially when distance, language and cultural barriers and the fog of war conspire against getting a good, clear look at what is really going on. Despite our desire to have US imperialism confronted and defeated, the Jihadist and sectarian forces in Iraq don’t exactly offer satisfying alternatives to the American occupation – even if we know that a US retreat in Iraq, however it is achieved, would very likely have positive consequences for human freedom in the rest of the world – if not Iraq. However, one place worth investigating in the search for movements more congruent with anarchists’ desire for freedom and self-organization is the workers struggle in Iraq. There are several interesting elements at play.
For instance, in Palestine civil service workers are set to strike and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has come out in favor of it. Abbas is a member of the former ruling party Fatah and is probably hoping to use the strike to destabilize the new government, run by Hamas. Meanwhile, the workers themselves have serious and legitimate demands: they want to get paid!
In Bahrain, 800 Indian workers (many of the workers in the Middle East are from Asia ), conducted what the press called a “flash strike” and refused to go into work, demanding back pay owed over the last four months and complaining about violent attacks by company officials representing their Dubai-based employer. After the Indian Consulate intervened on their behalf, the miserly companies agreed to pay half that amount now and resolve the rest soon. There are 130,000 Indian workers in Bahrain.
A fire that raged through the camp earlier in the month killed 16 workers and injured 11 more. In addition to the lack of payment, workers also complained that company officials forced them to pay exorbitant fees to the company in visa fees and compensation to the job recruiter. Already extremely difficult to pay at their dismal BD100 pay rate, the BD450 fee becomes impossible when the boss refuses to pay at all.
‘At the time of renewal of visas, they start deducting money saying that it is towards the renewal fees. This time in fact they have not stamped our visa. All of us are now free-visa workers despite the fact that we have paid the money,’ the Bahrain Tribune quoted the anonymous worker as saying.
‘If you are a labourer you will receive BD3 a day and if you are a mason or a steel fitter you may get BD4. If they deduct from this then what will we get?’
A past action last year led to the intimidation and removal of the strike leader. Unions are illegal in much of the Middle East.
This comes on the heals of a strike earlier in the month by about the same number of workers, protesting appalling conditions at their work camp, where two workers collapsed from dehydration. They alleged that the camp had been lacking water and electricity for over a month. The next day the strike was suspended when the company hastily installed a new generator. Strikers reported that they faced threats of deportation from their bosses when they complained.
“We’ve been facing water and electricity shortages for more than a month now, but for the past three days there has been a complete blackout,” said worker Dharmendar Yadav.
“Mohammed and Bhimaram fainted because they didn’t get water for the past couple of days. We are always threatened by the management that we will be sent back home and thus lose around BD1,000 each that we spent for our visas to get here.”
Living conditions in the camp are appalling, said Mr Yadav. “There are 24 of us crammed in to a 400sq ft room and the state of our kitchens and bathrooms is pathetic,” he said.
Another worker, who would not be named, said the kitchen and toilets were highly unhygienic. “Ten of us have to cook in a small cubicle that we call a ‘kitchen’ and the toilets are so filthy,” he said.
Further, the allege that their bosses extorted as much as half of their BD60 to BD90 a month salary in payment for visa extensions costing BD300. One worker complained, “If we tell our basic needs to our labour camp manager, he pretends as if he doesn’t hear or tells us that we can run away if we don’t like it there. We had warned them on Wednesday night that we would go on strike, but they ignored us”.
Meanwhile in Iraq, oil workers ceased their successful strike when the government caved into their demands. The head of the oil syndicate, Hassan al-Asadi, confirmed, “We received a document from the ministry of oil. It is a document to increase our salaries and to pay us (a) share in seasonal profits.” He threatened more strikes if the workers’ remaining demands are not resolved very soon. These demands included providing ambulances on site to transport injured workers. A grim demand indeed.
According to analysis by Kathlyn Stone, writing for Electronic Iraq, predicts more labor unrest in Iraq’s future. It is worth quoting Stone at length here. The initial comments by Mahmoud of the IFC refer to the most recent oil workers strike.
“Their basic demands for higher pay were met,” said the IFC’s Housan Mahmoud. “If the government doesn’t deliver on the rest of the demands, the strikes will resume.”
Mahmoud is a women’s and labor rights activist and chair of Iraq Freedom Congress Abroad, based in London.
The IFC is a movement led by unions and human rights activists that is rapidly gaining in popularity among the general population. It is modeled after the African National Congress, which came into power following worldwide pressure to end the white minority rule of South Africa. The IFC is calling for a democratic, secular alternative to both the U.S. occupation and political Islam in Iraq. The IFC is also a major supporter of the strike.
“The government and its administration have turned a blind eye to the demands raised by workers for months. Therefore the workers were forced to resort to a strike to impose their demands on the government and South Oil Company,” according to Amjad Aljawhary, North American representative of the Federation of Worker Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI). Union spokespeople said the strike “completely paralysed pumping oil from all Iraqi ports in Basra.”
Underlying the struggles is the U.S. plan to transform the Iraqi economy from publicly-owned to privately held. This holds true for the publicly-owned oil industry that represents 70 percent of the Iraqi economy. The march toward privatization and neglect of Iraq’s infrastructure contributes to massive unemployment, increased insecurity and violence, and a devastating impact on the average Iraqi working family.
An American who is working to establish an Iraq Freedom Congress chapter in the United States said the corporate media in the United States is intentionally keeping Americans in the dark about the existence of the Iraq Freedom Congress and the strong labor movement in Iraq, both now and historically. The struggle in Iraq is presented by the media as an “either-or choice between the occupation and the resistance,” said Martin Schreader. “If a third option, the IFC, was known by those outside of Iraq to be a real force, many of those who oppose the occupation, but do not want to see the ?resistance’ come to power, would begin to think they finally have a side in the conflict.”
An interesting point, indeed. Anarchists might be critical of some of the kinds of organizing taking place in these unions, because it is not clear the extent to which they are hierarchical in nature; however worker participation does seem to be genuine – as it must be to survive in this increasingly sectarian religious conflict. Still, wIthin the nationalist context and absent a firm anti-capitalist politics, recuperation is a real threat. After all, Saddam’s Ba’athists were secular, nationalist and socialist.
Nevertheless, like the rise of secular women’s organizations in Iraq, the increasing labor militancy offers some reason for hope and at least the possibility of a third position in the conflict which neither supports the Jihadists nor the occupation. Despite their sometimes violent relations with sectarian groups, many of the workers organizations still fear the intervention of US forces, who they preceive correctly as on the side of capitalist development in Iraq. Continuing opposition to the war at home can serve to open a space for worker organization in Iraq.
As Mahmoud points out in Stone’s article, Iraq does have a long history of worker militancy, but it also has a similar history of socialist militarism and party co-optation. In his fascinating book, A People’s History of Iraq, Ilario Salucci recounts the often disappointing and even downright betraying behavior of the various Iraqi communist parties. During World War II, for instance, the Iraqi Communist Party sided with the British, then occupying Iraq, because of their pact with the Soviets. Likewise, the Iraqi Communist Party today, resurrected from the dead with the 2003 American invasion, quickly joined the provisional government – to the disappointment of many. Those who know the history of Iraqi communist parties – or of communist parties generally – were not surprised.
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