GI SPECIAL #157:
Iraqi Workers Threaten General Strike And Armed Resistance;
Iraqi Workers Win
By Ewa Jasiewicz. Occupation Watch, Baghdad
IRAQI WORKER REPRESENTATIVES from the country's energy sector met last week
to discuss the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) imposition of low
wages upon public sector workers in the country.
In early September, the CPA designed, and Paul Bremer the Third signed,
Order 30 on Salaries and Employment Conditions, which cancelled all
previous state subsidies for public sector workers such as family, housing,
location, and risk benefits. Iraqi workers had relied on these subsidies in
order to survive their pittance dictatorship wages. Instead, the CPA
imposed a new 10 step, 13 level salary table which sets the country's
minimum monthly wage at 69,000 Dinar ($40) per month. This is less than
half of the recommended salary of a sweatshop worker in one of neighbouring
Iran's Free Trade Zones. The highest wage is a Super A Step 10 3 million
Dinar ($1500) currently being paid to governors and high-level ministry
The new wage table replaces emergency payments of $60, $100, $120, $220 and
$280 per month. For any workers receiving the new CPA minimum wage, this
means their income will almost be slashed in half.
The vast majority of public sector workers are still being paid in Dollars
although according to the dollar's strength, the payment is varied from
Dinars to Dollars, with workers being undercut by 20,000 Dinar ($10) at a
Dock workers and oil workers in the country's industrial heartland
governate of Basra have had their wages converted directly into dinars
after having been paid in dollars, three times over the past 5 months. $60
became 60,000 Dinar or 100,000 in some cases, when the appropriate wage
should have been 120,000. The undercut caused walk-outs and riots
Occupation Watch interviewed workers and trade unionists in Basra on their
conditions and organising. The response from Iraqi Port Authority workers,
Southern Oil Company Workers, Basra Oil Company Workers, Electricity Plant
Workers and Transport Union representatives was that they needed a rise.
Most workers we spoke to were receiving $60 or $120 monthly wages, with
those who had put in 10 years service in their workplace getting paid in
many cases as much as those with just three years experience.
Market prices, for basic foodstuffs, have almost doubled in some parts of
Iraq, the price of a kilo of onions rising from 250 dinar to 750 in Basra,
and apples going up by a third. Ration card rice was cut also cut three
months ago, say mother and wives, still struggling to make ends
meet. Fruit is too expensive to barely ever be seen in family homes in
Basra's poorest areas such as Haiyania and Jhoomouria, where I have been
living for the past month with trade unionists and their families.
Hayania is the hood where even locals never dare to tread; say you're going
there and eyebrows rise in horror. It's a place where fly-swarmed piles of
rubbish fester in the streets uncollected, the drainage system hasn't been
changed since the basic concrete tenement houses, now crumbling slowly,
were built in the 70s. Nostril-grazing sewage flows freely in open
gutters, between crammed homes, all guesting cockroaches, mice, rats and
the ubiquitous swarms of silent black flies.
Despite working most of their lives, these activists and fathers still
can't afford to repair their slum housing, buy new clothes or articles when
they need them, buy another heater as the night winter cold creeps over
their homes, buy any new kitchen equipment. 90% of their money goes on food
for the family.
The CPA administered ration (previously supervised by the UN's World Food
Programme) is what most Iraqi families still survive on. The ration ,
worked out at 250 ID (12c) per person, per month, consists of rice, flour,
pulses, cooking oil, tea, sugar, and fluctuating amounts of powdered milk.
Without the ration, families simply wouldnt survive. As it is,
malnutrition and anemia are rife. Eight hundred thousand children under
five years old are chronically malnourished, according to a 2000 report
jointly issued by the U.N., World Food Program and World Health
Organization (although from what I have personally seen in my six months
here, I'd triple that number). In addition, according to the 2002 UNICEF
country statistics, malnutrition and anemia in pregnant women has caused
high infant mortality rates with approximately 130 in 1,000 children dying
before they reach the age of five.
Basra residents rioted for three days in August over fuel price-hikes,
including that of cooking gas, which soared from its pre-war 250 ID, past
its post war 1,500 straight up to 12,000 per canister. Protestors, holding
banners saying: 'Iraq - the country of oil with no fuel'; 'Iraq - the
country of Oil - where is the fuel?' fist-fought British troops, trashed
shops and torched cars over the persistence of former high ranking
Baathists in management and administration positions, oil theft on the road
to Kuwait, and unaffordable petrol and gas. A gas canister now costs a
still inflated 4000 ID. Given that many Iraqi families use their gas-stoves
to heat water for washing (and that the average Iraqi family living in one
household is 8-12 member strong)the high price is a drain on any income.
Southern Oil Company trade union rep Faleh Khali Chiyid at North Rumeilla
crude oil pumping station told us a committee was formed containing
administration and union members to discuss the new CPA wage table and a
meeting was held for two days. 'We tried our hardest to push everything
forward but couldn't raise the lowest wage grade any higher than 6,000
ID. So, we decided to refuse the entire table'. He went on to explain
that trade unionists were concerned about the interests of all the workers,
even management and engineers as they feel they too are not getting
enough. A chief engineer with 12 years experience can expect to earn
246,000 ID per month ($120 or $30 per week). A chief engineer who has
worked for over 30 years gets the same level of pay after 30 years that an
administration official would come in on their first day in a government
Rejecting the CPA pay scale, SOC trade unionists have designed their own
based on current market prices and taking into account the level of risk,
responsibility, years of service and location involved in the job. 'For
instance' explains Hassan Juma, head of the Southern Oil Company Union, 'An
experienced technician working in the middle of the desert, cannot be
expected to receive the same pay as someone of the same level experience
working in an air conditioned office'. Hassan himself has ploughed 31 years
of his life into SOC and earns just 390,000 ID per month ($180 or $45 per
week). And he wants a rise.
'They are fools if they thought that because we were getting 3000 ID per
month before that we'll be happy with this system', he states bluntly.
The trade unionists analyzed the pay scale and saw that there were
approximately three years service between each step. They had no problem
with the top levels of payment in the CPA scale, set from 3m ID ($1500)
maximum (Super A Step 10) to 444,000 ID ($220)(Grade 3, Step 1) minimum.
And Grade 1 740,00 ID - 920,000 ($320 to $460), the wage remit a councilor,
manager or field expert could expect to receive. And Grades 3 and 2 444,000
ID ($220) to 713,000 ($355) dealing up the income a senior engineer or
supervisor can earn. According to the SOC Union this is 'fair enough'. But
from Grade 4, step 1, 342,000 ID ($160) downwards to Grade 11, Step 1's
69,000 ($40) was definitely not.
All in all there are 130 different set wages for Iraqi public sector
workers. Under the old emergency pay scale, an engineer on step 4 with five
years experience would be getting 342,000 or so ID ($160). Under the new
pay scale, he would be positioned on step 5 on 264,000 ($130), with a
cutback of $30 - a weeks wages for some and a big difference for a big
For the SOC Union, the CPA table cuts workers wages, has too many steps,
doesnt take into account the rising price of fuel, food, clothing, medicine
(rising since privatization of state pharmaceuticals company Kimidia) and
the axing of all previous state employee benefits. The SOC table will set
the minimum wage at 155,000 ID (approx. $85), more than tripling the
current decreed national minimum, and has cut out 3 grades and at least 30
Workers are refusing occupation administration dictates and autonomously
giving themselves the raise they need to live a decent life.
'We told them (SOC workers) to start saving their money in preparation for
if the ministry doesn't accept the wage-scale. We thought the Ministry
might respond to our refusal and our demands by withholding our wages',
explained Faleh. However, the SOC Union was prepared to escalate the
'If the ministry refuses to pay our new table, all of the refineries, the
power plants and crude oil pumping stations will stop. And no one from the
administration will be able to interfere', told us Faleh. The threat of a
total shut down of Iraq was however, more of a shock-tactic according to
Hassan Jum'a who reasoned, 'We won't shut down everything, there are
humanitarian needs that need to be met, water purification plants,
hospitals, these facilities must be kept going and we want the SOC to keep
going too. But, what we will have a total shut down of, is exports'. And
the expected response to that?
'One of our assumptions is that soldiers will occupy the pumps. If they do,
we will fight them. We will resist them with force. And we will join the
Unsurprisingly, the threat of a general oil strike in Iraq's biggest oil
company and one of only two still functioning and shipping oil to market,
plus thousands of radical oil workers joining the armed resistance, caused
some alarm at CPA-Governing Council levels and prompted the Minister of Oil
himself came down to hold talks with the Union.
The result was that until the new wage table can be agreed, through
negotiation, between the Ministry of Finance and the union, the old
sparse-step CPA emergency payment system (starting at $60 per month rather
than the risible $40) will replace the 130-step CPA dictated one.
No set time limit has been agreed for the negotiation of the new table but
the SOC union describes the move as co-operative and is confident that a
new, reasonable, livable, just wage-system, which they have independently
designed, can be implemented. The results of this struggle will be far
reaching for all Iraqi public sector workers, all of whom stood in
solidarity with the SOC Union catalyzed wage table refusal and strike
With this victory for worker autonomy, the CPA has been dealt a bloody nose
and the Ministries of Finance and Oil given a wake-up call as to who holds
the real power in Iraq.
To quote Hassan Jum'a 'We are in control of this country'.
And the action, function and position of SOC workers has showed this to be
Resistance to the occupation's aims: slave wages, privatisation and all the
lay-offs and casualisation and atomisation of the workforce this could
mean, and mass profiteering from Iraqi oil resources, is manifesting itself
in more ways and means than just the daily IED, missile and machinegun
attacks on occupation convoys and bases.
Iraqi people standing up for themselves, their families and their
communities and striking the empire back where it really hurts in its'
pocket-book, in its' corporate paychecks - (spilled young US blood not
being reason enough) is an expression of a growing generalised, social,
resistance to the occupation.