A struggle to exist

Tim Lezard on Iraqi trade unionism

Bakar Hussein shrugs his shoulders and looks embarrassed when asked about his stint in his namesake's jails. The political researcher, who looks older than his 37 years, spent a year inside the notorious Red House, a purpose-built torture centre in Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"We've all suffered," he says. "What makes my story special?" His tale of hour-long sessions with his hands bound tightly behind and above his head, his body suspended from a meat hook and wired up to an electricity generator is, he insists, not unusual. "I'd pass out because the pain of the torture was so great," he recalls. "Then I'd be taken down, unconscious, and thrown back into my cell with my friends. I didn't expect to leave the Red House alive."

Now free from the Red House and from Saddam Hussein's regime, Bakar and his fellow trade unionists face a different, but no less deadly, enemy: suicide bombers. "There is a genocide of working people," says Adnan al-Safar, the media officer for the Iraqi Federation of Workers' Trade Unions. He is speaking to a delegation of British politicians and trade unionists who have travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan on a fact-finding mission.

"Our main problem is terrorists because they are targeting workers every day, especially labourers queuing for work." As he says this, there is a murmur of agreement from the other Iraqis gathered round the restaurant table, together representing more than a million Iraqi workers. One of them adds: "The terrorists are killing poor people; wealthy people are safe."

The five-hour meeting, half of it held in the dark because of the power cuts that plague the city, is believed to be the first such gathering since the fall of Saddam three years ago. Apart from terrorism, the 22 Iraqis present agree that their single largest problem is Decree 8750. Passed by Iraq's ruling body last August, this decree permits the government to "take control of all monies belonging to trade unions and prevent them from dispensing any such monies".

The British government, while publicly praising the new democracy in Iraq, has done nothing to prevent this attack on the independent trade unions that should be playing a vital role. "We've tried to build new, independent trade unions, totally different from the old ones, but Decree 8750 is stopping us," says the vice-president of the Iraqi workers' federation, Hadi Ali. "We struggled to beat Saddam. Now we are struggling to build a strong, federal and democratic Iraq."

The generosity of our hosts belies the poverty of a country starved of investment. They need money to help them rebuild their society - many workers are not paid even the minimum wage, earning just 70,000 dinars (£27) a month. While being wary of the consequences of opening their markets to foreign companies, they accept they cannot resist the overtures of global capitalism for much longer. "Privatisation gives us new challenges," admits al-Safar. "We need to learn how to face the multinational companies without letting them violate legislation and workers' rights."

But before then, they need to be free to organise their independent trade unions. Despite the security situation, they are optimistic, and look forward to the day when Decree 8750 is repealed. Al-Safar says: "I hope the new government - when it comes - brings a national unity that sees unions as friends and supporters of democracy."

That is a hope shared by the Labour MP Dave Anderson, who was part of the UK delegation. "Iraq may be on the knife-edge of full-scale civil war," he says, "but there is another Iraq and a non-sectarian future through its growing labour movement, which could hold the key to uniting the country in peace and prosperity. Iraqi unions want urgent assistance to retrieve their independence and to boost their clout as a social partner in reconstructing Iraq, and we'll do all we can to help them get back on their own two feet. We're already hoping to set up a trade-union radio station, and now we're raising funds to help them print a newspaper, too. They need only £900 a month, and we're hoping trade unionists in the UK can help that dream come true."

Tim Lezard

The writer is a former president of the NUJ. More details of the campaign to repeal Decree 8750 at: www.labourfriendsofiraq.org.uk and to make a donation to the TUC's Aid Iraqi Unions Appeal, go to www.tuc.org.uk/international