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INTERVIEW: Hashmeya Alsaadawe

14 January, 2016Hashmeya Alsaadawe is president of IndustriALL Global Union affiliate, the General Union of Electricity Workers and Technicians in Basra (GUEWT), and a member of IndustriALL’s Executive Committee representing workers in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2003, she became the first woman in Iraq to be voted leader of a national union, and is believed to be the first woman to lead a union anywhere in the Arabic-speaking world.

What was it like to be able to join a union at the end of the Saddam Hussein era?

At the outset of his regime in 1987, Saddam Hussein passed Resolution 150 preventing trade union work in the public sector, which affects all employees in the state-owned power industry. Right after the fall of the regime in 2003, I saw a chance to defend the rights of workers. So I rushed to form a trade union for the electricity workers in Basra, with the help of a number of young people.

What challenges did you face in being elected union president as a woman?

In the beginning, I did not encounter any difficulties except from a small number of trade unionists who weren’t used to the idea of a woman leading a union. There were three people running for election as president; two men and myself. When I won the other candidates started to create some difficulties during my term in office. The union went on to make great achievements for workers and affiliated members, so, in the second period of elections, I won again and kept my position as president.

How has your union been organizing and defending workers since you were elected leader?

After organizing ourselves, we formed trade union committees in all the power sectors, such as production, transport and distribution of energy. We set out to meet the demands of workers and achieve sustainable energy production. Our approach was mainly through negotiation, but in case of difficulties we staged sit-ins at work sites and demonstrated in front of the local government building on public holidays. We also resorted to the media to express the demands of workers and our affiliates. We have achieved a great deal of success by all these mechanisms, including permanent employment for around 2,500 contract or temporary workers in the electricity sector.

What challenges have you faced as a union leader in Iraq?

The real difficulties I’ve faced have come from my involvement in fighting corruption in the power plants. I was threatened by militias, who were backed by corrupted officials in the power sector.

However, I was not only the one that received death threats. There have been many patriotic men and women who paid with their life for carrying out their work. After I was nominated for the Council of Representatives (parliament), I received further threats from militias aligned to religious political parties in Iraq.

How have the death threats affected you and your family?

Certainly these threats have weighed heavily on my family and especially my son. We were forced to take my son out of school and to halt his studies for two months after threats against his life.

How is violence in Iraq affecting workers?

The terrorists targeted many production plants and power transmission lines, and bomb attacks lead to the deaths of workers. We have also had reports of workers on the power lines being killed and kidnapped.

You have been successful in a ten-year campaign for a new labour law, what difference will it make to workers in Iraq?

In August 2015, the Iraqi parliament passed a new labour law that covers workers in the private, mixed and cooperative sectors, but excludes workers covered by civil service law. In addition to prohibiting child labour, discrimination and sexual harassment, the new labour law includes improvements on health and safety and annual leave. Working women will also benefit from improvements in maternity and pregnancy leave.

IndustriALL and global union solidarity was crucial for the adoption of a modern labour law corresponding to ILO conventions.

However, the ban on unions in the public sector will continue until the enactment of the trade union law. We urge the Iraqi government to sign and ratify ILO Convention 87, which is now in the Iraqi parliament for ratification. This will in turn pave the way for the adoption of the trade union law.

What difficulties have trade unions faced in Iraq?

In an attempt to shake off pressure from trade unions, in 2009 government officials started to enforce Saddam Hussein’s Resolution 150, saying that workers in the public sector have no right to organize.

The government even issued a formal written order directed to the police and security forces saying that any sort of trade union action in the public sector is punishable by Article 4 of the terrorism law.

They began attacking trade unions by closing trade unions’ offices in both the oil and power industry in sectors such as ports, rail and municipalities and so on.

So we urgently need a new law containing the rights and freedoms of association in the public sector. Once that is done, we will be free to form democratic trade unions for the defense of workers’ rights.

You have long campaigned for electricity for all, how is that going?

Our union has worked hard to lobby for power security to the general public and has cooperated with national managers in the power sector. We held a number of meetings with officials from the Ministry of Electricity to try and guarantee a continuous power supply from the multinational companies, which are running the power plants in Iraq. Unfortunately widespread corruption prevailed. Some statistics indicate that, since 2003, around US$40 billion meant to develop the electricity sector in Iraq has been in vain!

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope to have a law for trade union rights and freedoms passed. I also wish to build and strengthen GUEWT before I retire. I hope security comes back to Iraq and that the nightmare of terrorism and ISIS ends as they are causing real fears for me and my people.

How can other unions show their support and solidarity for workers in Iraq?

Over the years I have had support and solidarity from unions and international organizations. These organizations directed messages to Iraqi officials while visiting Iraqi embassies in many countries as well as staging sit-ins. They supported trade unionists that had been transferred from their work sites to distant places and have shown solidarity with trade unionists who were attacked by the courts. Here I must point out the pivotal role of the IndustriALL delegation that visited Iraq in 2013, in difficult circumstances, to meet with the labour minister, the Speaker and MPs. We hope this support continues so that we can pave the way for a law that enforces trade union rights and freedoms, as well as a social security law for workers.

IndustriALL and global union solidarity was crucial for the adoption of a modern labour law corresponding to ILO conventions.