The Peroxide Spook And The 25c Armed Picket Line
Ewa Jasiewicz reports from Baghdad on how Iraqi workers are faring as their country is carved up amongst the corporations.
27th October 2003
In the early morning rising smog Baghdad's Daura Oil Refinery is a warping shadow. In a car, crossing the Tigris, the concrete suspension pillars of Daura bridge axe my vision into rapid black and white box-frames; the smogged city; the Daura flame; the filth river; the refinery warped. Nothing would be what it seemed today. I'm on my way to meet freshly 'liberated' and unionised workers, with an Occupation Watch delegation of US Labour Against the War and French Trade Union activists. Cameras click as our cars swerve through the rickety front gate and straight down a two-lane time-warp into a 1950's oil community nightmare.
Daura was constructed in 1955 by British company Forstwheeler and Kellogg, a neat precedent to the current reconstruction hand over of Daura to Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root. Halliburton spearheaded the bomb-paved gold rush, securing an immediate no-bid $71.3 million dollar contract to repair and operate oil wells in Iraq. Daura was fiercely bombed in the 1991 war and burned for 41 days. During this war it avoided damage thanks to the protection of plucky delegations of international human shields. Post blitz it was protected from looters by the refinery's General Director Dathar 'God Father' Khashab's personal 300-strong armed militia.
What capital creates, it destroys and redelivers. The money spin of the destruction and reconstruction industry is an appetite re-gorged by war.
Its jaws were most recently re-oiled by the 1999 Kosovo War and the ensuing $10bn reconstruction scramble, whereby several thousand industrial facilities (with workers still inside them the Zastavka industrial complex in Kragujevac being the most well-covered example) plus tens of bridges were obliterated. And of course Afghanistan, the country which the empire expected to roll over. Twenty five years of cold war contortion and conflict had left Afghanistan in a hand-rubbingly reconstruction-ready, levelled state of infrastructural ground zero. However, quick-profit forecasts fell as the Afghani resistance escalated, resulting in un-reaped reconstruction costs of well over the $15-20bn projected over the next five years. Meanwhile, the killing, and the (re)-making of it, continues.
The first I heard of Dathar Khashab, Daura refinery's 58-year-old Director General, was from the nervous lips of a just-clocked-in worker in the refinery's rickety admissions office. It was 8am, buses were wheezing in, workers were trooping out, and the 14 hour day-shift at Daura was just beginning. He began by telling me of the plant's most recent wildcat strike, one of three in the past few weeks, catalysed by an anonymous engineer independently from the refinery's new union. On October 10th, over 150 workers walked out in protest at long hours, poor pay and bad working conditions. Most workers are still on CPA labelled 'emergency pay' of $60 a month. The 30 per cent wage rise of $18, plus the loans and land promised by Bremer three months ago have yet to materialise. A minute or two into our conversation, an unseen gesture from an unseen source collared him back onto pro-boss track and he suddenly began to talk about the worthless risk of the strike, how the manager was a great man, a man who recognised and supported the organisation of the refinery's first independent trade union (*Alarm Bells*). And that if anything was to happen to the manager himself, well then they'd all strike in support of Him. He was trying, said the man, words tumbling, hands pressing down his blue overalls unconsciously, to secure more money for the workers but he was limited by the CPA, and he was good, all good.
Khashab's office is situated in the large, Texan-white ranch-like Management house, surrounded by palm trees. Taken up a white walled, winding stairwell, we enter, through three doors, his long, deep, lofty room, equipped with glass coffee tables, long couches and wirey men who dart in and out with trays of murky sweet tea and water and more tea.
He mans a large mahogany desk, swathed in his own smoke, with thuraya, CPA mobile and land line phones keeping him in touch of all and everything he needs to know. A sunset oil painting of Daura at dusk, a perfect black industrial skeleton against a cumulus sky of burnt orange and purple adorns the wall above his head. Its a fantasy interpretation of the now battered, broken, monoxide filth and steam seething complex, unrenovated since the 50's; conditions inside the boiler room like a prison, a sweltering factorium of grime and heat and steam and motion and ecological suicide in the making. There is no canteen, rest rooms or respite for the 3000 workers who work there.
Privatisation is good because it keeps workers in fear. The blue-overalls wearing, Galoise chain-smoking, deep throat rasping, shark-like oil don is sharing his thoughts with us on the privatisation of Iraq's oil industry. It keeps workers in fear of their jobs. Every worker here knows I control his life. If I sack him I ruin his life, his family's life. A good whip to crack on the backbone of Iraq's most critical industry, the most powerful men in the world, the working men keeping Iraq's black gold pumping, Europe's industrial appetite sated, and the American Occupation Administration's hands full. An unruly bunch shut down the country's biggest refinery in Basra last week in a solid one-day strike. The story went unreported in the international media.
Little is known on the ground here about it either, or the methods used to repress or resolve it. The strikes at Daura, totalling three in the past two weeks did not happen according to Khashab. The protests you mean? These were not strikes. A strike is when you shut down the whole plant. This happened in Basra, it didnt happen here, he rasped. I wish I could have solved the protest by peaceful means but, well.. he shrugged and laughed raspily and never elaborated on the means he did use, but, his faithful unionists backed him up. We can't have any more stoppages. More stoppages will harm the country, they said. National interest before class interest, government interests before human interests, the key to class submission, the key to all class empowerment suppression.
Khashab's throat is sore from all my talking with the workers the other day he he he. He laughs throatily. Khashab is well known in worker circles as a former Baathist. Any worker hoping to rise through the ranks had to capitulate to the Baath Party. Any worker holding any position in the oil industry crucial to its physical operation, its technological survival had to be loyal to the party. No one outside the party or with any potential to revolt, to seize the means of the regime's wealth production, could know how to operate the key parts of any refinery.
Technicians were trained in camps in Kuwait. If allegiance was pledged, promotion was rocket-swift. It's unclear what position Khashab held in 1972 and 1978 when 20 and 18 workers were shot dead at Daura, respectively. But Worker Communist Party members widely refer to him as a fascist. The Daura Oil Refinery Trade Union was rig-voted into existence two weeks ago (as two workers told us, far from the plant sat in the safety of a barbed wire and concrete block surrounded Karrada hotel). Not only is it welcomed by the boss, but it is also recognised by the General Confederation of Iraqi Worker Trades a body of revamped (or not, no one will tell) unions, some still allegedly led by former Baathists, and currently controlled by the Communist Party of Iraq. The union is recognised 'unofficially' by the Ministry of Oil and the CPA. This is an anomaly seeing as neither the Confederation nor any trade union in Iraq has been officially recognised by the Occupation Authorities because officially, in law, they do not exist.
Representatives at the Confederation's squatted simple, deskless, and almost chair-less office in the middle of Alawi Hilla Bus Garage, Baghdad, told us they'd submitted requests for recognition to the CPA three times but to no avail. Furthermore, the CPA deny the existence of workers in Iraq full-stop, just as their predecessors did.
In 1987, the Baath Party passed a law which banned strikes and officially deleted the existence of 'workers' in Iraq, redefining them as 'civil servants' employees of the state. Trade unions were no longer necessary, the socialist state was taking care of workers' rights so what need was there to create unions or strike? The CPA has deliberately opted not to repeal this law, leaving workers in a legal and industrial identity limbo - just the way a newly asserting itself regime likes it.
The Occupation Watch delegation visited the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to enquire precisely as to what had become of this law and the status of working people in Iraq. The Minister himself left for Kuwait the day beforehand, allegedly due to death threats following the Baghdad Hotel bombing, which was aimed at killing the entire cabinet. Instead we were treated to the two-man show of Dr Noori, the Ministry's internal coordinator and external affairs man, and the surprise presence of a peroxide-haired, slender, glasses-donned 30-something English guard-dog.
Irene Findley was her name and she said she was an adviser to the Ministry. What to say, what not to say? Public Affairs. Damage Limitation. Policy Control. She sat and wrote down all our names and everything we said before giving us a speech on how the ministries are working very closely with the CPA (indistinguishable it seems), covering everything from the setting up of Trade Unions to Child Protection.
However democracy takes time to deliver, the CPA is concentrating on restoring power and water supplies (six months on and still trying) and also (curiously) how so many TU representatives from all over the world had been visiting the ministry that they didn't know quite what to do with them all. But my advice is that I don't want the minister to spend all his time discussing trade union matters, she said. Finally. And with a few more well-rehearsed noncommittal, non-informative statements on law enforcement, democracy, security and how the Ministry has succeeded in creating an application form for unemployment benefit cash benefits still so far being confined just to ex regime cops and soldiers whilst the ordinary ten million unemployed continue to suffer - the peroxide 'spook', job done, boundaries set, Minister briefed, got up and left.
Dr Noori, humiliated, nervously and protractedly followed his orders and dodged our question on whether the 1987 Baathist anti-Union, anti-Worker law had been repealed no less than three times, spelling out to us clearly, a resounding 'No'. "Child labour, however," he told us proudly, "had been made illegal." The country's most unthreatening and powerless sector of the population has had (unenforceable on pain of parental revolt) legislation delivered concerning it. The working class however, explosive to any regime or system when organised and conscious of its own power to seize, halt or reclaim the means of production and profit remains repressed.
From the militancy absorbent and struggle-co-opting phony union of Daura to the autonomous Nahrawhan Brick Factory Union, organised two months ago with the help of an activist from the Worker Communist Party. Members Fahed Owada, Shahel Ghatta, Farhan Hassan and Nizar Abdel Hussein risked their jobs to come and speak to us about their ongoing struggle. Nahrawahn, 30km east of Baghdad, is a complex of 150 factories, employing 15,000 workers, housing approximately 7,500, and churning out thousands of bricks daily. Men, women and children are employed there, working 14 hour days for 3000 to 750 (child wage) per day - approximately $1.50 to 60c per day the equivalent of the price of a melon smoothie at Baghdad's gleaming mercenary and petrol-yuppie frequenting Hamra Hotel, 20 falafel sandwiches, a 30 minute taxi ride to and from Baghdad Jadeed to Kharadda Dakhil, four cans of Pepsi or a week's worth of bread, just bread, for a family.
Entire families are employed at Nahrwahn, ages six to 60 being represented in the work force. 7,500 workers live on site in dire Boss rented accommodation. There are no health benefits, no holiday pay and no medical aid for injuries. Boys under 14 load up trucks with bricks, setting them in neat order. Boys aged 14-up work retrieving the bricks from the factory's 30m tall, 15m wide, 750 degree raging furnace. Those who enter the hell protect themselves with their own clothing no fireproof suits or overalls are provided. They wear two sets of underwear, two shirts, jumpers, two sets of trousers, a shirt and a keefayah around the head, four or five pairs of socks, and gloves made from old punctured inner tyre tubes. Those emerging usually drop to the ground on normal air impact. Hands placed in warm water are cooled cold instantly.
Black oil powers the furnace, 'the worst kind' we are told, wafting chemical dioxides throughout the factory. Respiratory illnesses are common, as are preventable accidents. One man lost seven children last year when a part of the oven collapsed on top of them. As he was from a powerful tribe, he was compensated commensurately ($900,000) by the owner. Those from weaker families are not so fortunate. A 24-year-old woman sleeping on her break during the night shift was overcome by gas and died. The factory owner told her father its not my problem, its yours.
There is no clean water to drink, workers drink from the river, no air conditioning (fans), no bathrooms (workers must walk out into the desert to relieve themselves) and due to no contracts, any worker can be dismissed at any time. "You have to see it to believe it. You can't work as a human being in such a place," Shahel tells us.
On Saturday October 11th, 75 per cent of the work force decided enough was enough and went on strike. Between 300-400 workers marched to the owner's office and demanded social security, retirement payment, on site medical aid facilities, contracts and a rise in wages. The owner had no idea that a union had been formed and told them: "Fine, strike, go, I will dismiss you, others will come to take your place." The workers responded by going to their homes, bringing out their guns and spontaneously forming an armed picket line. Manned with machine guns and kalishnikovs, workers guarded their factory and defended their strike from demolition by scab labour. The owner, overpowered, ended up granting the workers a rise of 500 dinars 25c - and agreed to enter into negotiations regarding social and health benefits. The strike was regarded all round as a massive success.
The unionised workers, empowered by their victory, have ideas about improving their conditions and keeping the owners in check. "The Union must control the fuel in the ovens. Then the factory owner will obey us," says Farhan. "Each factory has its own share of gasoline from the government. If we co-operate with the ministry of oil and the owner breaks health and safety rules then the ministry must stop his supply of oil."
Whether the Ministry will be willing to recognise an independent and militant union such as the Nahrwahn brick makers and take their side when there appear to be no laws whatsoever guaranteeing the rights of safety of workers in Iraq is debatable. "We know that we will be sacked when we return to Nahrawahn," says Farhan, "but we are willing to risk this for the rights of the other workers." One thing is certain though. Undercurrents of resistance, solidarity, autonomous organising and a rejection of Occupation, ex-Baathist boss or unionist imposed authority are alive and striking in Iraq right now and they need support urgently.