Report from the delegation of British trade unionists to Iraq
18-25 March 2005
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The delegation, comprising seven people from three British trade unions (FBU, NATFHE and UNISON), as well as the International Representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions and a journalist from the Financial Times, visited Iraq from18-25 March 2005. The delegation followed the 2004 TUC Congress resolution on Iraq which called for the exchange of delegations and twinning arrangements between British and Iraqi unions and took place only a few weeks after a TUC organised seminar on Iraq in London at which a number of Iraqi unions had participated and at which it was agreed to organise a return visit.
The trade union context in Iraq
Trade unions began organising in Iraq in the 1930s, initially in the nascent oil industry but later in transport, public utilities and education. By the time of the overthrow of the Hashemite Monarchy in 1958 the unions were a major political force capable of organising hundreds of thousands of workers. Following a coup in 1963 by the Ba’ath party the union movement began to be restricted in its activities, however, it was only after Saddam Hussein seized power in 1979 that the unions ceased to exist as independent organisations and became part of the Ba’athist apparatus. In 1987 a new labour code banned public sector workers from joining trade unions altogether.
Following the 1990-1 Gulf War trade unions began to organise in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was autonomous from the rest of the country. Iraqi trade unionists also founded the Workers’ Democratic Trade Union Movement, which operated underground and in exile.
Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003 a number of trade union organisations emerged. The Workers’ Democratic Trade Union Movement re-founded itself as the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) in May 2003. The Ba’athist General Federation of Trade Unions still exists but has sought to distance itself from the past and reorganise, whilst the former General Secretary of the GFTU has tried to set up a new organisation linked to a political party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq. The Kurdish unions are in the process of consolidating themselves. During the period between 1991 and 2003 the Kurdish General Workers Syndicate Union (KGWSU) a federation of blue-collar unions – was divided along the same political/administrative lines as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Following the elections of January 2005 and the moves to create a single KRG the two wings of the KGWSU are also looking to form a single body. A number of white-collar unions, most notably the Teachers Union, also organise in Kurdistan. A similar blue-collar/white-collar divide exists in the rest of Iraq with several white-collar unions, again including the Teachers Union, not belonging to any of the federations. Finally, the Union of Unemployed in Iraq has created the Federation of Workers Councils and Trade Unions.
The delegation was only able to visit the territory administered by the Kurdish Regional Government (Dohuk, Erbil/Hawler and Sulaimania provinces) due to the security situation in Iraq. These three provinces have been effectively autonomous of the rest of Iraq since the first Gulf War ended in 1991 and the uprising by the Kurdish ‘peshmerga’ militia. The KRG militia and police are in effective control of all three provinces and there have been relatively few incidents in the area since 2003 compared to the rest of Iraq.
The delegation entered Iraq by road from Turkey. The journey is safe from a security point of view but long (4 hours from Diyakabir in Turkey to the border with at least another 4 hours from the border to Erbil/Hawler). Crossing the border is a laborious process due to the controls imposed by the Turkish authorities. Flights do exist between Amman in Jordan and Erbil/Hawler but are operated by a charter company and fly subject to demand. The flights also stop-over in Baghdad, which poses a potential security risk due to missile attacks on the airport. The Foreign Offices currently advises British nationals to avoid flights in and out of Baghdad airport.
Travel within Iraqi Kurdistan between the three main cities is safe due to the regular controls by the militia, although the roads are often in a poor condition. The delegation felt completely safe walking and driving around in the three main cities.
Travel from the rest of Iraq to Kurdistan remains difficult and potentially dangerous. However, all the delegations we met insisted that they would rather travel within Iraq to meet international visitors than have to travel to Jordan for example, a journey which is equally potentially dangerous.
During the visit the delegation was able to meet with a broad cross section of Kurdish and Iraqi unions, as well as representatives of the main Kurdish political parties and government.
The delegation met with the leaderships of the Kurdish General Workers Syndicate Union in Dohuk, Erbil/Hawler and Sulimania provinces. It also met with a large number of Kurdish white-collar unions/professional associations including the Teachers Union, the Chemists Union, doctors’, dentists’ and lawyers’ associations. The delegation also visited several fire stations to meet fire-workers, who are currently not unionised.
The delegation received the leadership of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions from Baghdad as well as the local leaderships from Mosul and Kirkuk who had travelled to Kurdistan. In addition the delegation met the leadership of the Iraqi Teachers Union.
The delegation also met representatives of both the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, including newly elected members of the Kurdish Regional Parliament and the Iraqi Parliament. It also met members of the Kurdish Regional Government in all three provinces: the Governor of Dohuk; the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Housing and Development, Minister of Local Government, and Governor of Erbil/Hawler; and the Deputy Prime Minister in Sulimania.
1. Co-operation with confederations:
* Given the continued allegations of links between the GFTU and those harassing IFTU activists, the TUC should no longer work with the GFTU and should work to see that the ICFTU also ceases to work with the GFTU
* The TUC should work within the ICFTU to recognise the Kurdish unions (once a merger has taken place) as a legitimate confederation. Until such time invitations to ICFTU events should be sent directly to the Kurdish unions, rather than via the Iraqi confederations.
2. Practical support to be given:
* All unions requested training for the members. This ranged from training for branch activists, via training for their leaderships to workforce development for ordinary union members. UNISON has already agreed a capacity building project – the TUC and other affiliates should be encouraged to take part in this and possibly develop their own work, especially where they have expertise in communication skills and work with the media. TUC training material should be translated into Arabic and Kurdish (Sorani) so it can be made available to Iraqi unions. DfID should be approached to see if it would be prepared to fund workforce development projects through trade union run education centres. There was also a need for wider civil society training.
* All unions require basic IT and communications equipment and office facilities. The IFTU in Mosul, for example, said it would cost just $200 a month to rent office space. Iraqi and Kurdish unions could also benefit from foreign language training, especially English, for people in their leaderships to help them develop international contacts.
* Development of sector to sector relationships between British and Iraqi unions through twinning, delegations etc as is already taking place with the teaching unions.
* Iraqi and Kurdish unions should be invited to TUC Congress this September and a fringe meeting should be held.
* During our meetings with the professional associations the issue of international links and the lack of international recognition of qualifications was raised. A link was also made to an urgent need to upgrade the teaching syllabus. Approaches could be made to organisations such as the BMA and the Law Society to encourage them to develop links in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Work to be undertaken by UNISON
* 6 guests ( 2 from the IFTU and 2 each from the Kurdish federations) to be invited to UNISON National Delegate Conference.
* Re-model the ‘organising skills’ training to allow a greater number of trainers to be trained and for training to take place within Iraq itself
* Develop training for the leaderships of the IFTU and Kurdish federations. Training to include; negotiation skills, communications skills, IT and a fact-finding visit to the UK
* UNISON to work in developing language and communication skills of the Iraqi federations to help them communicate more effectively with other unions world-wide.
Brian Joyce and Dave Green, members of the FBU Executive Council
Keith Sonnet and Nick Crook, Deputy General Secretary and International Officer of UNISON
Mary Davies, member of the NATFHE National Executive and the TUC Women’s Committee
John Lloyd, Editor of the Financial Times Magazine
Abdullah Muhsin, International Representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions