Followers of Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have won control of the labour ministry. Photograph: Reuters/Fars News
Swimming against the tide of popular uprisings across the region, the Iraqi government is trying towipe out free and independent trade unions. Two weeks ago it decided that the main trade union body in the country was no longer going to exist. Ministers appointed a government committee, packed with officials from the Sadrist movement, to take over the structures and assets of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW) – the Iraqi equivalent of the TUC – and run its upcoming elections.
This is a dangerous recipe for breaking apart one of the few institutions left that unites people across tribal, ethnic and religious boundaries, and which is committed to women's rights and the creation of a peaceful and prosperous Iraq.
Iraqi workers have been forming and running their own unions, often in the face of tremendous personal danger, first under Saddam's repressive regime, and then under the allied occupation and the bloody backlash that followed. Despite these pressures, unions have been improving workplace health and safety, wages and productivity, and building a social security system to help vulnerable workers back on their feet.
As theuprisings from Tunisia to Bahrainshow, unions are playing a key part in the mass movements calling for dignity and justice in people's lives. In Iraq, they are an urgently needed antidote to rising authoritarianism and the ever-present risk of sectarianism.
Unions also have a critical role in speaking up for the rights of women. As one Iraqi union leader recently told me, giving women a voice in his union and in the workplace has strengthened the union's credibility and effectiveness, allowing it to help all the workers it represents. He admitted it had also shifted his own conservative Islamic views on women.
But recent developments put all of this at risk. We have reports of government officials, flanked by police, attempting to take over union offices. And it is painfully sectarian. In Basra last week, the seven officials that demanded the keys to the local union office were all from the Sadrist party. These followers of Shia clericMoqtada al-Sadrare a small, but important, minority in the Iraqi coalition government, and won control of the labour ministry in the recent carve-up of government portfolios. In preparation for union elections, these Sadrist officials have been issuing their own union membership cards, effectively giving them the right to decide who can vote. In a similar incident last year – and a worrying sign of things to come – the polling booth for a union election was inside the Sadrist party offices. These are tactics that Hosni Mubarak would be proud of.
It breaches the Iraqi constitution and international labour standards on the freedom of association, but the Iraqi government hasn't been respecting these for some time. Although it is more than eight years since the fall of Saddam, his repressive labour laws are still in force, preventing public sector employees – the vast majority of Iraqi workers – from belonging to a union.
Governments have a role to play in ensuring that unions are democratically run; what is needed is for the Iraqi government to pass a fair and just labour law, adhering to the standards of theInternational Labour Organisation(ILO), not acting to hand the movement over to narrow sectarian interests.
The TUC is doing its part. We have written to the Iraqi prime ministerNouri al-Malikioutlining our concerns and we're supporting a global union appeal calling on the government to back down. If it doesn't, we will be seeking to use our veto rights to block its hand-picked workers' delegate to the ILO's annual conference next month – a small but important act. (To those outside the union world this may seem like no big deal, but it will be incredibly embarrassing for the Iraqi government if its delegation is rejected by the global union community.)
Encouragingly, our own foreign office has been supportive of union rights in Iraq, pressing the Iraqi unions' case with Baghdad. But workers in Iraq desperately need the silent majority across the world to tell the Iraqi government to join the positive tide of change across the region by respecting workers' rights rather than trying to strike them out.