Iraq is a country full of contradictions. It has one of the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the world, yet that wealth has failed to trickle down to the general public. The state of its workforce is a perfect example. Many of Iraq’s laborers are unskilled and uneducated. To make matters worse, the country lacks legislation to protect their rights. That means it is hard for them to organize and improve their lot.
Iraq has a large and growing workforce, but it is not very skilled. The country has one of the largest, youngest, and fastest growing populations in the Middle East and North Africa. That means it must support an ever expanding pool of laborers. It is estimated that around 250,000 people entered the labor market each year from 2007-2011. That’s supposed to increase to 290,000 per year from 2012-2016. An Iraqi study found that 54% of workers were illiterate, only 6% had primary school diplomas, and 44% did not own their homes. For some laborers, their costs exceed their pay. The exploding population places a tremendous burden upon the economy to provide employment opportunities. Unfortunately, the lack of education means that few of these new laborers can find good paying jobs. Not only that, but Iraq is one of the most oil dependent countries in the world, and that industry hardly provides any work at all. That’s left the government to become the largest employer in the country. Politicians have had no qualms about employing low skilled workers however as part of their patronage networks to maintain their base.
One way workers have tried to improve their lot is by organizing into unions, but Iraqi law severely limit their rights. The 2005 constitution says that laborers have the right to organize. At the same time, the country maintains much of its Baathist era legislation. Decree 150 of 1987 for instance, eliminated unions and rights of association in public sector and state owned enterprises. Another law states that the General Federation of Iraqi Workers is the only labor organization allowed in the country. People employed in domestic and agricultural sectors are excluded from certain protections as well. Finally, Iraq does not authorize collective bargaining, which means unions have little power to better their situation. Parliament is supposed to change these Saddam era laws, but hasn’t. In 2007 for instance, there was a draft law for unions, but it was never passed. This all means that the constitution provides little protection for Iraq’s labor force. Instead, the old legislative framework severely handicaps them, and there has been no progress in revising it. Those attempting to unionize are basically operating under Baathist rules where no independent organizing was allowed.
General Federation of Iraqi Workers headquarters in Basra (Niqash)
The government has interfered and tried to control those unions that do exist. In April 2011, the government ceased to recognize the General Federation of Iraqi Workers anymore even though it is supposed to be the only official union in the country. Baghdad then attempted to take over the organization by managing its elections. The authorities created the Ministerial Preparatory Committee to oversee union balloting. The General Federation attacked the committee for having no union members, and accused it of faking its election results in 2012. Other unions have reported the government confiscating their assets, threatening and harassing their members, threatening to use anti-terrorism laws against strikers, and using fines, demotions, suspensions, and other forms of punishments against labor activists in state run enterprises. One union leader was fined $25,000, which was several years worth of wages. In Basra, the General Federation of Trade Unions and Workers Council of Iraq had its offices broken into and destroyed in September 2012, which it blamed upon the security forces. Iraqi police have also limited media coverage of unions such as when a journalist from Al-Baghdadia TV was beaten and had his equipment taken when trying to cover a strike at a cement factor in Muthanna province in May 2012. These tactics show that the Iraqi government is not willing to accept labor organizations. It wants to control them, and if it can’t it tries to stymie their activities, so that they are ineffective.
Iraqi workers find themselves in a poor situation. Thousands of new laborers enter the workforce each year, but they usually lack skills and an education. There are also few good opportunities, which makes most of them look for a job with the government. If they’re lucky they can find employment there, but few are used productively, and have to give their support to political parties in return. The situation is worse for those in the private sector where wages are lower and job security is low. What workers usually do in these types of situations is organize into unions. Iraqi law and the security forces have stood in their way. Constant harassment and attempts to undermine the autonomy of labor groups have severely limited their scope, and ability to improve the state of workers. What this means is that the state of Iraq’s labor force has little chance of improvement until the government changes its attitude.
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “United States Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” United States Department of State, 2013
Ghanim, Waheed, “no labour laws in iraq: employers pick workers’ representatives,” Niqash, 7/19/12
Al-Shaher, Omar, “Iraqi Workers Lack Laws To Protect Their Rights,” Al-Monitor, 5/2/13
Tijara Provincial Economic Growth Program, “Assessment of Current and Anticipated Economic Priority In Iraq,” United States Agency for International Development, 10/4/12