TUC appalled by withdrawal of union recognition rights by Iraqi government

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date: 9 May 2011

embargo: For immediate release

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber has today (Monday) written to Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki calling on him to repeal the sudden withdrawal of union recognition rights from the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW).

A government decree issued last month withdrew its recognition of the Iraqi trade union confederation and replaced it with a new unelected body, mostly made up of officials from the Sadrist party, who are now overseeing new union elections.

The TUC says that the move has effectively ended free and independent unions in Iraq, and is a dangerous recipe for breaking apart the GFIW - the Iraqi equivalent of the TUC.

The GFIW is one of the few institutions left which unites people across tribal, ethnic and religious boundaries. It is also committed to women's rights and the creation of a peaceful and prosperous Iraq.

Iraqi workers have been forming their own unions, often in the face of tremendous personal danger, first under Saddam's repressive regime and then under the Allied occupation and the bloody backlash which followed. Despite the many hazards they have been able to improve workplace health and safety, wages and productivity, and have created a social security system to help vulnerable workers back on their feet.

The TUC is calling on the Iraqi government to repeal the order and implement a new labour law that complies with basic standards, as set out by the Independent Labour Organisation (ILO).

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: 'As the uprisings from Tunisia to Bahrain show, unions are a key part of mass movements calling for dignity and justice in people's lives. In Iraq they are an urgently-needed antidote to rising authoritarianism and the ever present risk of sectarianism.

'But recent developments put this at risk. Of course governments have a role to play in ensuring that unions are democratically and lawfully run, but the actions of the government in Baghdad, rather than act to reverse Saddam's repressive labour laws, have merely worsened the plight of Iraqi workers, and effectively handed the unions over to a religious faction.

'If the government fails to back down on the restrictions imposed on Iraqi unions, the TUC will call on the worker representatives at next month's ILO conference to block the workers' delegate chosen by the Sadrists at the Labour Ministry. This would have the effect of blocking the entire Iraqi delegation to the conference - a move which would severely embarrass the Iraqi government.'

NOTES TO EDITORS:

- The full text of the letter follows:

Dear Prime Minister

On behalf of the TUC, its 55 affiliated trade unions and the 6.1 million workers they represent, I am writing to express outrage at your government's most recent interference in the internal affairs of the Iraqi trade union movement.

The Iraqi Cabinet issued two decrees on 17 April 2011 that withdrew its recognition of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW) and its member trade unions, and instead appointed a 'Ministerial Preparatory Committee (MPC)' to take over all union structures and assets and oversee the upcoming trade union elections.

I have no faith whatsoever that this MPC is capable of conducting free and fair trade union elections. This MPC is an unelected body, over-represented by officials from the Sadrist party. Union colleagues already have reports of people claiming to have been appointed by the MPC, attempting to take over their union offices, often with the support of the police or military. There are also cases of such people issuing their own union membership cards, presumably to members of their own faction.

This will result in a deeply flawed election process that is clearly in breach of Article 22 of the Iraqi constitution, and the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Remarkably, it is even in breach of the repressive Saddam-era labour law of 1987 that is still in force. It also risks creating a highly fragmented and politicised trade union movement - severely weakening one of the very few institutions in the country which unites people across tribal, ethnic and religious boundaries, is committed to women's emancipation and the creation of a peaceful and prosperous Iraq.

It also appears that these elections will also not cover public sector employees, a massive part of the Iraqi labour force, nor will they provide for trade union pluralism. They will therefore exclude most Iraqi workers and trade unions that are independent of the GFIW. Both are serious breaches of ILO conventions.

To be sure, the Iraqi government has a role to play in assisting workers to form and join independent and democratically-controlled organisations. It can do this through enacting an ILO-compliant legal and regulatory framework, and can assist with training, registration, administration and oversight of union elections in an impartial and profession manner.

Your government has failed to do any of this, despite over eight years passing since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Instead, it is seeking to sweep aside the entire current trade union movement and seems to be leaving what is left in the hands of a narrow sectarian interest. In doing so your government is seriously tarnishing its reputation, particularly at a time when people from across the region are calling for dignity, human rights and for a say in how their lives are run, from their workplaces to their governments.

We call on the Iraqi government to rescind these repressive decrees, formally recognise the GFIW and its structures, and pass an ILO-complaint labour law allowing all workers the right to form and join trade unions, and to hold fair internal elections free from external interference.

I have also learned that the Iraqi government has chosen its own worker delegate to participate in the upcoming International Labour Conference rather than recognising and selecting the legitimate GFIW representative. In doing so, the Iraqi government is ignoring the ILO constitution which requires member states to select a worker delegate in consultation with the most representative organisation of workers - in this case, the GFIW. Unless the Iraqi government reverses this decision the TUC will call on the ILO Workers' Group to block this delegate at the ILO credentials committee. This would have the effect of blocking the entire Iraqi delegation to the Conference - a situation that I am sure we all want to avoid.

Yours sincerely

Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary

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