The IndustriALL Global Union Middle East and North Africa Oil and Gas network meeting met in Beirut, Lebanon, on 19 and 20 April 2017, to develop strategies for building union power in the region.
Supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, this was the third meeting of the network, formed in 2015 to strengthen coordination between unions. Thirty-five delegates from 16 unions in 12 countries participated, representing most major oil and gas companies with operations in the region.
The network held a lively debate about the challenges in the region: exploitative companies, repressive governments, and the chaos and dislocation created by war in Syria and Yemen and the ensuing refugee crisis.
The outcome of last years’ successful strike by Kuwaiti oil unions was discussed, as well as the establishment of a new union for private sector workers in the country.
The ongoing case of the DNO workers in Yemen, who were abandoned by their employer when war broke out, was highlighted. Participants pledged their support and solidarity to win justice for the workers.
The working practices of companies in the region diverge greatly: from the exploitative practices of companies like DNO and ExxonMobil, through to companies like Total who engage in social dialogue. In Iraq, a deal was concluded with Shell, which established a union to cover 6,000 gas field employees.
However, Khaled Bettine of Tunisia said:
"Foreign oil companies don’t invest for the long term. When the oil price drops, they disappear without compensating workers."
Privatization has been a major issue in Morocco, where the state-owned SAMIR refinery was privatized, and subsequently shut down and went into liquidation, threatening thousands of jobs. The company is currently searching for a buyer.
Human resources director of Total, Olivier Chavanne, addressed the meeting by video conference from Paris. IndustriALL has a global framework agreement with Total, and the company pledges to uphold the right of workers to unionize. Ongoing social dialogue with the company helps to resolve industrial relations issues.
The war and refugee crisis, and repression in the backlash against the Arab Spring, were major concerns. As Hassan Jumaah Awad of Iraq said:
"ISIS occupied 20 of our best and most productive oil fields, and later burned them. We are restoring wells that have been damaged, but major national wealth has been squandered."
Speaking about the refugee crisis and the influx of migrant workers, Latifa Benwakrim of Morocco said:
"We have weak economies because we have inefficient governments. It is not refugees who created the problems. As a union that carries the slogan of social justice, it is our duty to defend refugees."
But Sleiman Hemdan pointed out that Lebanon has 1.5 million refugees for a population of less than 5 million.
"We are passing through exceptional times, and we are very close to the Syrian border. We are also coming out of a 17-year civil war. We want to be open. But our unemployment rate is 38% and our growth is zero."
IndustriALL energy director Diana Junquera Curiel reported on the results of a survey conducted to determine organizing priorities. The survey compared labour law, the ratification of ILO Conventions, health and safety, wage levels, the position of women and youth, the increasing use of precarious work, and unionization levels in the region.
“The priorities identified by our affiliates were social protection for workers, followed by the inclusion of women and youth in union structures, the need to fight precarious work, and to provide training in negotiation and dialogue.”
The network developed and approved an action plan to address these priorities. The plan sets out to strengthen company and country networks, create a common strategy to fight precarious work, and develop social dialogue at a regional level.
The process for developing the network is unfolding according to this plan:
Formation of the network and creation of regular and solid communication
Effective exchange of information and experience
Solidarity at times of conflict
The development of regional company networks
The initiation of dialogue with companies.
IndustriALL assistant general secretary Kemal Özkan spoke at the meeting and also met privately with many of the delegations, pledging his support and providing practical advice and assistance. He said:
"I am very pleased with the progress that has been made in the region, where we have seen some real breakthroughs.
“We will continue to support our affiliates to build a strong network and challenge both governments and multinational oil and gas companies."