Nine years since U.S. troops entered Iraq to oust the regime of Saddam Hussein, work and life in Iraq are—to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes—nasty, brutish, and hard.

Iraq is a resource-rich country, yet workers hardly earn enough to feed their families. Economic revival has been slow and sporadic, and working Iraqis are seeing little in the way of progress after the long occupation and withdrawal. Sectarian violence means that travel to work can be a risk in many cities, and indiscriminate roadside bombs continue to kill people just trying to work to maintain their families. For retirees, the situation is worse; Iraqis describe the social security system as not providing enough “to pay for the taxi to pick up the check.”

Living Standards Fall

While the government claims that unemployment has dropped to 11 percent, unofficially it is estimated to be as high as 30 percent. Employment for people who can find work is often unstable. Wages and salaries are not keeping up with inflation, and so living standards, instead of improving, continue to deteriorate for the Iraqi working class. The daily minimum wage for skilled workers is about $10, and for unskilled laborers it is about $4.50. While actual wages vary according to sector, skill, and location, most workers are not earning a sufficient wage to afford a decent standard of living. The official poverty rate was 23 percent in late 2011. Many industrial facilities in Iraq were destroyed as a result of the war, and targeted bombing seriously depleted the productive economic sector. The lack of clean drinking water and electricity supply affects millions daily.

Suhad Ibraheem, who works for the Ministry of Transport in Baghdad, said, “I started work in 1985 when the work conditions were very good, but things deteriorated significantly between 1991 and 2003. There have been some improvements since then, but salaries do not keep pace with inflation, especially affecting food, energy, housing, and transportation. And it is worse for many in the private sector.”

Unions report that the weakness of occupational safety and health laws and measures, along with the lack of labor inspection, leaves millions of workers at risk daily, especially in industrial facilities, where most workers have little or no safety equipment. Workplace accidents cause death and injury, and workers are exposed to hazardous materials while toiling for less than $1 an hour. Yet when they protest, unions still face the wrath of the courts. Sixteen workers in the Basra refining sector who organized a protest in October 2011 demanding worker rights were fined approximately $60,000 apiece for a work stoppage that lasted 17 hours, a harsh and draconian retaliation.

Iraq has suffered from internal violence resulting from the differences between the major political factions that have heightened the instability in the country. Throughout the war and related violence and instability, union groups have demanded change, only to see their efforts spurned. The right to real collective bargaining remains prohibited for most Iraqi workers. Its importance is manifest in cases where enterprises with no trade union representation are privatized and the ability to resist massive layoffs is considerably reduced. Unions say the proposed privatization initiatives and deregulation in the major utility and transportation sectors, with major port facilities being operated by Gulf companies, threaten to leave more Iraqi workers without employment and the country dependent on foreign ownership of crucial national interest.

Underemployment, meanwhile, was 43 percent in rural areas and 21 percent in urban areas in 2011, according to the government. With nearly one-fourth of the working population jobless, this means that roughly 55 percent of the workforce was either out of work or working short-time.

Youth and rural unemployment remain huge causes of concern. More than 40 percent of Iraq’s population is younger than 15. According to a recent survey, 21 percent of females and 23 percent of males age 15–24 are unemployed; 33 percent of youth who intend to migrate are looking for jobs. With the decline of agriculture, Iraqis are flocking to the cities, exacerbating unemployment.

Women are even more economically disadvantaged. Across the country, only 14 percent of all women are either working or actively seeking work, and of those, more than one in five is unemployed. The problem facing women workers is summed up by Shayma’a Salih, a 42-year-old salesperson in Jamela Industrial Center in Baghdad. “I had to work in this center since 2006 to cover the high living expenses for my family of six children, especially after my husband died due to a terrorist bombing in Baghdad. My husband worked in the private sector without insurance or social security, and the government had no plan to help victims of terrorism live in a dignified way. When I get sick or any emergency causes my absence from work, I do not get paid.”

Nine years on, the economy is dependent upon oil, which is not a labor-intensive industry. The government remains the largest employer, but corruption and political patronage are still major issues. Protests against corruption in management have become a frequent event over the last two years.

Hashmeyya Muhsin Hussein, president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union in Basra, said, “With all the energy wealth Iraq has, we still cannot get a regular supply of electricity, and it is workers’ families that suffer the most.”

Migrant workers, primarily from Asia, also are very vulnerable, facing high levels of exploitation. Given the lack of systematic inspection of work sites, it is difficult to estimate the amount of forced labor in Iraq. But anecdotal information suggests that migrant workers in the construction industry often work overtime without proper compensation.

The only bright spot in this bleak economic picture, at least for private-sector workers, is Iraqi Kurdistan, but even that is dimming. Othman Sa’ad , president of the Construction Union in Sulaimaniya, said, “Since the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003, Kurdistan has established new work projects and the employment situation is better than in 2003. There are more opportunities in the private sector, and the trade unions have helped improve the terms and conditions of work. Working conditions have improved during the past two years, reflecting positively on the living conditions of workers. But the working conditions in the public sector are not as good; factories are closing, workers are being transferred, and the Kurdistan Regional Government is moving toward a more privatized economy.”

New Administration, Same Labor Law

Workers, meanwhile, are still subject to labor law from the Saddam Hussein era, and modifications affecting corporate law have removed trade union input into corporate decision-making. Most Iraqi workers hoped the fall of Saddam Hussein would enable them to recover their right to an independent union. In 1987, the regime reclassified most Iraqi workers, including those in large state enterprises, as civil servants, thus prohibiting them from forming unions and bargaining. Despite changes to much of Iraq’s legislative structure, this decree remains in effect. And there is no indication as to where and when the rights of trade unions will be codified. Union leaders, with support from the international labor community, continue to press for worker rights, but neither U.S. nor Iraqi politicians have made this rights agenda a priority over the past nine years.

Despite the Saddam-era labor decree, Iraq has seen a significant resurgence in trade union activity since the U.S. intervention. The country has a long and proud history of defiant trade unionism, as was manifest in its resistance to British imperial control decades ago. Unions have been formed in many sectors. They carry out official business, fight for improved terms and conditions of work, and campaign against corruption in the management of public companies. Trade union organizations across the country are striving for improvements despite the lack of a legal framework for their operation.

In 2011, Iraqi workers renewed protests about the poor public services and lack of employment. None of their demands have been met. In a major protest in 2011, Abdul Kareem Abdul Sada, vice president of the General Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq–Basra Branch, addressed the crowd: “We are demonstrating here to demand electricity, drinking water, essential services, and political reforms as the occupation has failed to do that. We are demonstrating for real democracy, social freedoms, and worker rights.”

Even though protesters are increasingly met by armed security forces, workers and their unions are striking back against low wages, poor conditions, and dangerous work. Given the lack of bargaining rights, workers engage in mass protest activity, and even without legal status unions are finding ways to win some demands.

Nine years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, workers are still struggling in Iraq—for decent jobs, for dignity, for security, for safety, for public services they once enjoyed, and for basic rights still denied them. But, they say, they will continue to call for a better environment for working people and for a better Iraq for all Iraqis.

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