by Benjamin Dangl
Amjad Aljawhary is the North American representative of the Federation of Worker Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI). In this interview he discusses his union’s main objectives, the US government’s response to union organizing in Iraq, how the money for reconstruction is being spent, public opinion in Iraq regarding the presence of US troops there and what activists and workers outside of the country can do in solidarity to help Iraqi workers.
Benjamin Dangl: Please describe the work of the Federation of Worker Councils and Unions in Iraq.
Amjad Aljawhary: The work of the federation is to organize the workers in their workplaces to demand their rights. We formed our organization in 2003 in Baghdad in a public conference attended by many delegates from every city in Iraq. They elected 55 representatives who formed the executive board representing the workers from different sectors and industries in Iraq. Today the federation has members in almost every sector and industry from Basra in the south to Mosul in the north. The federation policy does not discriminate against its members; it considers them all as workers regardless of their ethnicity or religious background.
BD: What are some of the group’s main goals and demands?
AA: Our major goal is to build a strong working class that leads to a modern society, and direct intervention in making policies and decisions in the state level. Nevertheless, that would not be possible without a strong and free working class. Our demands are mainly focusing on working hours, wages, women’s rights, social benefits and employment insurance. These demands are actually either missed, neglected or do not exist at all. In Iraq today where there are millions of unemployed workers who have no employment issuance [unemployment insurance]; it is very hard for them to survive under severe conditions such as the lack of a good health care system, the lack of security, the devastated economy and corruption. All these are actually factors of a crippled society. The women’s situation has deteriorated because of the occupation and political Islamic groups who forced women to be as a prisoner in their homes. We in our federation have always raised these issues while the government that is based on ethnicity and religion didn’t want to pay any attention.
BD: What is your role within this Federation?
AA: My role is to represent the federation in North America… This means I am linking the working class or the labor movement here in North America to the labor movement in Iraq, and try to build a strong foundation of solidarity between these two movements. I’ve had many tours to different countries in the world, for example Japan, France, Finland, and I have visited the United States twice after the occupation. In each tour I explain the situation in Iraq and express the feeling of the Iraqi people–especially the workers under occupation–and maintain the line of communication between these movements. To a certain level, I was able to deliver the Iraqi message to the American public and in turn, I was able to deliver the message from the American people to the Iraqi people. Unfortunately, the American public is not seeing the reality in Iraq because of the corporate media, who tried to portray Iraqi people and workers as religious fanatics who have no goals in their lives but to kill their opponents. However, I was able to deliver a different message and to draw an opposite picture of the Iraqi people, which actually represents the reality. In my recent visit to the states people were surprised and stunned by the facts of what is going on today in Iraq, and they could not believe that Iraqi people endured this much. Sadly, the American public was told that Iraq is in a process of development and everything is in right track, while in reality this is far from the truth.
BD: What has the US government’s reaction been to union organizing in Iraq?
AA: The American government did not want to intervene directly into the union’s business. However, after two months of the occupation, they raided our office in Baghdad and arrested some of our leaders for some days; they were released later on. That was part of the intimidation process. The government that was installed by the US troops has issued a decree called Decree 16 which recognizes one union only, stating that the other unions are illegal. This decree still exists and has never been abolished. Our understanding is that the US government wants to include in the upcoming constitution a labor law that is similar to the one in United States, which is unaccepted by the Iraqi labor movement. We in our federation struggle to include a labor law that we drafted in any constitution. Today the major barrier for the labor movement in Iraq is the occupation because it has driven the society into a chaos and corruption, and without driving the occupation out, the situation is going to become worse and worse.
BD: Do you believe the money going into Iraq from the US for reconstruction is being spent wisely? Where is most of the money going?
AA: I personally do not believe that the money is going into Iraq for reconstruction. Simply because Iraq is exporting its oil and as you see, the oil prices have risen today, for example, to $65.00 a barrel. Millions of barrels are flowing out of the country. Nevertheless, the revenue of this oil has not been seen by the Iraqi public. I mentioned earlier that the major problem in Iraq today is the violence and corruption; they both work hand in hand to destroy the society. While the money is sent by the American public from their taxes, the oil revenue is actually in the hands of corrupted officials, whether they are Iraqis or Americans. Electricity, for example, is still far from being in better shape; water purification still as bad as it was, and so on. Clearly, there are certain groups of people who are benefiting from the current anarchy.
BD: What are the major industries in Iraq which have been privatized by US corporations? What has the impact of this privatization been on the functionality of these industries and on employment in Iraq?
AA: Regarding privatization, the US-appointed Governor Paul Bremer in the early days of the occupation announced that they will privatize every sector in Iraq’s industry except the oil sector. However, they could not proceed with that because of the growing anger by the Iraqi people, and also because of the absence of a government that gave legality to the occupation. Even today what the government is doing is trying to [portray] these industries as a losing business, by either not maintaining their parts, not providing raw materials so they will not have any production, and eventually show them as idle industries. It is actually a conspiracy to sell off the entire country. Shutting down these businesses or industries will lead to massive unemployment, and that is already at a high rate. Imagine under these circumstances–where there is no unemployment insurance, no basic services, and the poverty level is very high–what kind of living condition the normal Iraqi has. We think that these unemployed people who’ve reached the millions will be very easy recruits to the so-called insurgents.
BD: Please describe the current strike among health care workers in Kirkuk.
AA: Health care workers in Iraq are the most of vulnerable workers for many reasons. The violence leads to many casualties, poverty, and a lack of electricity and clean water, which leads to different kinds of diseases. All that gave the health care employees a very special and important role in Iraqi society. However, the government did not want to appreciate their work. What they did recently is to decrease their wages, which led the health care employees to go mad because of the recent act. First, they decided to go on strike, and they did. The ministry of health official met with the leaders of the strikers. He didn’t negotiate anything. However, he received a list of demands made by the health care employees to be negotiated with the ministry of health. Next thing they halted their strike, giving the government one week to respond to all their demands–otherwise they will go on an open strike until their demands are met. This is truly what happened, and why that happened, in Kirkuk.
BD: Could you discuss the oil workers’ strike in Basra and their demands?
AA: What happened in Basra is a very different story. The mayor of Basra tried to take advantage of the miserable living conditions of the oil workers in Basra, [he] said [that] in order to make our life better we have to form our own federalism where we can maintain part of the oil revenue to ourselves–and this federalism actually is based on sectarian division, that discriminate against other workers who are not Shiites or not even Muslims. The oil workers of Basra did not go on strike in response to the mayor of Basra or his demands. They went on strike because they live under a very miserable living condition. The wages are too low, and the basic needs are absolutely not available. Therefore, they went on strike demanding that the government fix the situation. However, the government and their allies sought to lead the strike and give the strike another shape or another goal… I mentioned the workers have their legitimate demands, which were increase of wages, decrease of working hours, providing electricity and clean water. But the mayor and his assistants and allies told the media that these workers seek federalism, which was in fact a sheer lie.
BD: How will the new Iraqi constitution obstruct the rights of women?
AA: The constitution that has been drafted recently states that Islamic shariah should be the main source of law. That means considering women as second-class citizens, not to mention that Islam itself has failed to show a democracy in every country that…had Islam as a main source of [the] constitution. Under these laws human rights will be severely abused and we will go back to the old ages and we have examples of what is happening today in Iran and Saudi Arabia… You can imagine if you are a second-class citizen, what kind of rights you would have. Simply, you will have to ask for permission for every single move you want to make. For example, making decision to go to school, making decision to get married, making decision to travel, making decision to have the custody of your kids, making decision of giving birth or to have an abortion, and so on. These are just examples of the obstructions that women face.
BD: What is the general consensus among Iraqi citizens regarding the US occupation of Iraq? Do most people want the US troops out of Iraq immediately?
AA: The Iraqi people do not want to live under occupation even though the occupation has ousted Saddam. Nonetheless, the outcome of the occupation was disastrous. It’s been more than two and a half years and Iraqi people have never enjoyed one single moment of peace. Every aspect of life is going downwards, [there is] nothing good in the foreseeable future. I can assure you that the Iraqi people want this occupation to end today–before tomorrow, as soon as possible. You can even sense the madness [anger] among Iraqis towards the current government which for last six months has not achieved one goal, but corruption and nothing else. Everything is still the same or worse, and people believe that this government is appointed, installed and brought in by United States.
BD: What can workers and activists in the US do in solidarity to help workers in Iraq?
AA: Workers and activists not just in the United States but all over the world can help the Iraqi people move forward by building a strong foundation of solidarity between the Iraq labor movement and the international labor movement. Our major barrier is the occupation that handcuffs the Iraqi labor movement. Building a strong labor movement in Iraq requires a strong organization that is able to lead their demands and hopes. We have built this organization; however, our major problem today is the financial issue, which we cannot overcome because the government does not want to recognize us as a union. Therefore we don’t have any funding coming from the government, we don’t have any funding coming from anyone else but from within ourselves as workers or donations by some organizations from Japan or from the US. For example, the US labor movement and activists can look into that and try to help us in this way. US Labor Against War donated a certain amount of money to our organization and we thank them for that.
However, this is not enough, because…we still cannot issue our newspaper, we still cannot hold conferences because of the lack of money. All of these things are considered a barrier and we hope that the that the US labor movement and activists can look into that and try to help us in this way. Besides, we look at the American labor movement and activist as our friends who can tell the American public that the Iraqi labor movement is suffering and try to tell the American public the stories of the Iraqi labor movement and try not to believe the corporate media but the real voices of Iraqi labor.
Benjamin Dangl is the editor of TowardFreedom.com
This story originally appeared Aug. 23 in Toward Freedom
Federation of Worker Councils and Unions in Iraq
US Labor Against the War
See our last report on labor struggles in occupied Iraq
Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Oct. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution