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Trade Union Protests in Iraq Signal Continued Political Instability

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28 February, 2011

While the eyes of the world are on legitimate protests for democratic rights in several Arab countries, demonstrations last week in Iraq remind that democracy – or even a government with functioning civil laws and institutions – is still not a reality.

Major clashes erupted in several Iraqi cities on 25 February, a “Day of Rage” in protest to corruption in government and failure by the al-Maliki administration to provide basic public services.

But even before last Friday’s protests, trade unions in Iraq have conducted strikes and protests in demand of a new labour law that gives public-sector trade unions full and universal rights. The most recent strikes started on 13 February when an oil and gas workers’ branch of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW) staged protests at facilities of the North Oil Co. in Kirkuk.

Jamal Abdel Jabbar leader of GFIW Branch at North Oil Co.

Workers are demanding improvements in pay, direct employment and pay hikes for temporary employees, and more opportunities for Kurdish workers. North Oil employs some 15,000 workers, of whom 3,700 are casual staff. They ear about US$210 per month, while other regular workers earn up to US$2,000 per month.

The protest actions in northern Iraq were repeated on 24 February. The next day, as part of the “Day of Rage,” GFIW and its affiliates in Basra held protests demanding a labour law that would finally give Iraqi workers and trade unions rights. The demonstration in Basra by the GFIW also called for public policies to reduce unemployment especially among the young, basic services for all citizens, and improvements to ration cards.

Reports state that 11 people were killed in Friday’s “Day of Rage,” mostly in clashes between protesters and policy on entering government buildings in different cities.

One deadly incident occurred in the early morning hours of 26 February when extremists entered a petroleum refinery in Baiji, 170 kilometres north of Baghdad, and detonated a bomb. The bomb killed an engineer and severely wounded three workers. The explosion will severely cripple the largest of Iraq’s three refineries, with output of the 250,000 barrel-per-day refinery forecast to drop by two-thirds for the foreseeable future. Baiji refines crude oil into kerosene and gasoline.