Troubling times for Iraq's teachers

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Troubling times for Iraq's teachers

With shadowy political figures trying to hijack their union, a chronic lack of teaching resources and continued death threats, teachers in Iraq are under enormous strain, as a recent delegation to the UK told the TUC.

As Nasser al Hussain, executive member of the Iraqi Teachers Union (ITU) explains: 'Key forces within the government are using a law inherited from Saddam's era to try to control and split trade unions.

Ahmed Jassam, head of the ITU's technical sector describes how the crisis unfolded: 'The government's high ministerial committee responsible for overseeing trade union elections announced last year, without consulting us that we had to hold elections. We then met with the appointed committee and realised that everyone on it was from just one political party.'

The ITU leadership refused to participate, arguing that they'd recently held their own elections under their union's rules, and had a court ruling declaring the meddling of the committee to be illegal. Yet elections were still held in January this year with widespread voting irregularities documented. Some union members even reported that ballot boxes were located inside the offices of this political party.

The ITU leadership refused to recognise the results and a serious and dangerous split has emerged. 'Our President in Basra was arrested and jailed for a few days', says Nasser, 'and he's receiving threatening phone calls such as, 'if you don't stop we'll kill you'.'

'While this puppet union is not widely recognised, it seems that forces hostile to independent unions still have the upper hand in government,' says Ahmed.

The ITU are working with the international trade union movement to design stronger rules to increase its independence and democracy. As Nasser puts it 'the culture of dictatorship runs high so we need strong rules to resist this'. The support of UK trade unions has made a huge difference according to Ahmed, with a TUC statement of support even getting media coverage in Iraq.

'Ultimately,' adds Nasser, 'our problems stem from a lack of fair labour law in Iraq.' The teachers across Iraq support the national campaign for a fair and just labour law, and have been encouraged by the support of Iraq MPs, particularly in Iraqi Kurdistan and key leaders such as former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. International support here has also been critical.

For teachers in Iraqi Kurdistan, life under a sympathetic regional government has helped them rebuild from a tragic past. The Kurdish Teachers Union (KTU), formed in 1962, was forced to operate underground during the years of Hussein's dictatorship and suffered terribly. Some 400 Kurdish teachers were killed in the struggle against Saddam, explains Dr Nadir Mustafa Qadir, head of the KTU's international department.

The union had recently been involved in assisting with the formation of the Kurdistan University and College Union, set up to tackle 'the chronic underinvestment in research, equipment, and people,' says Nadir.

For academics in the rest of Iraq 'there is zero funding for research,' says Nasser. 'There are no books and resources. Violence against academics was extreme in Iraq particularly three years ago where 210 academics were murdered. Many fled Iraq, and many are starting to retire.'

The delegation expressed hope that the recent national elections might provide a glimmer of hope for Iraqi workers. 'The elections in Iraq still haven't lead to the formation of a new government,' says Ahmed. 'No one political bloc has enough seats to form government but we will press whatever coalition emerges to take workers' concerns seriously.'

The delegation, organised by the NASUWT spent two weeks in the UK on intensive union training and meeting with key UK teaching unions.

For more information on the situation facing teachers and the labour law campaign listen to the RadioLabour interview with Abdullah Mushin, international representative of the General Federation of Iraq Workers.

To support the campaign for a fair and just Iraqi Labour Law, sign the international appeal.

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