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Basra Electricity Workers Announce Strike Action - Iraq report

Ewa in Basra | 09.01.2004 18:28 | Workers' Movements

Electricity plant and station workers in Occupied Basra fight back against Bremer's slave-wage scale order. Social resistance to the Occupation mounting as workers realise and reclaim their power...

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Basra Braces Itself for Industrial Shut-Down
Ewa Jasiewicz, Occupation Watch

Five days ago, workers in Najebeeya and Haatha power plants, and power
stations in Khor Zubair and She'iba, staged protests and walk-outs over
low wages and long hours. In Najibeeya workers attacked the
administration building and the boss himself Hammad Salem Rghadbaan - a
man notorious for mistreating workers and now protected by the usual
boss-propping heavies in Basra SCIRI'S Badr Brigades, muscle also for
Iraqi Port Authority chief and many a worker Molotov target - Abdel

Rgahdbaan, a former influential Baathist, enjoys a stretch- office
complete with massive satellite televison, sofas, an expensive, imposing
desk and male mignions serving crystal bowls full of chocolate treats. He
denys the existence of unions, using Bremer's issue on Organization in
the Workplace to delay all recognition, pressurizes building workers at
the plant to halt construction on the union's HQ, has allowed a former
buddy employee to effectively squat the plant's nursery with his family,
despite them having their own house in Gurna and leaving 28 kids shut out
from a safe space to dwell in during the day and women workers to bear
their kids on their arms or walk with them in baleful tow. The current
new nursey space the former canteen - is a loose electricity-cable
dangling shaft of a place, devoid of furniture and being renovated at a
painstaking slow pace. Rghadbaan also pays out slavewages (2000 ID per
day just over a dollar a kg of apples, a kg of potatoes and packet of
cigarettes) to retired workers forced back to work out of desperation,
and a basic $60 per month for most under 5-years service workers at the
last count two months ago. Women are also discriminated against in their
wages receiving 10,000-20,000 ID less than their male counterparts, per
week - an undercut of over a whole day's wages. This swindle is also a
violation of International Labour Convention 100 on equal renumeration
which Iraq is a signatory to. Rgadbaan also assaulted the plant's only
female trade unionist, and mother (who brings her 5-year-old son Saif
with her everywhere she goes) and an outspoken critic of the management.
Friends inform me that she was shoved by him, which is here is culturally
akin to a full attack. There is also no safety equipment at Najebeeya
no boots, new suits, glasses, masks, gloves, first-aid equipment,
emergency communication system or safety belts. No major necessary
reconstruction has been carried out yet either, nine months on into the

Rgadan, a known tightwad in the wage stakes also scrimped on the annual
Eid bonus. Whilst some public sector workers received as much as 70,000
ID ($40) Rghadbaan gave his workers 5,000 ID ($3).

During the protests at the plant, workers stormed the administration
building, attacked Rgadban's offices, hauled the boss himself up by his
lapels and gave him a beating.

Haartha workers held similar protests, again over low wages and poor
conditions. Many work 15-hour days when an official day should be six, in
noisy, carbon monoxide fumed environments, with no safety equipment.
Again, similar to Najebeeya, there is no emergency communication devices
to inform workers six floors up of any potentially lethal malfunctions.
The main boiler turbine in the control section is caked in mud to keep it
cooled, as the automatic cooling system broke-down long ago. The safety
equipment, any which wasn't stolen or looted dates back to the 80s and is

Haartha power plant is currently running at 25% capacity, with only one
of its generators operational which was reconstructed autonomously by
workers using canibalised spare parts from other damaged generators.

Bechtell, the US corporation which won the contract to conduct emergency
repairs on bomb-smashed electricity plants has been paralysed in its
efforts to even begin reconstruction. Japanese technology giant
Mitsubishi built Haartha 20 years ago. Only Mitsubishi owns all the
drawings, plans, and crucially the spare parts which make up the plant
the South's largest and most significant. And Mitsubishi are officially
staying out of Iraq, due to the security situation, for another two full
years. The options for re-charging Basra with electricity are slim and
rely on either taking apart the massive generators and making moulds out
of the moribund parts, or shiping in entire mobile power plants an
expensive, unstable and unsustainable solution. Basra experiences
blackouts daily, sometimes three times a day. The old Baghdad Baath first
system of diverting 70% of the country's power to the capital and
starving out the unruly south persists. Noone drinks from the tap - the
unpurified salty water and DU cause everyones hair to fall out in matted
clumps in the shower; skin cracks and rashes flare up, especially amongst
young children with sensitive skin. And those who cannot afford to fill
the 250 ID 5 litre UN plastic water carrier have to suffer the
thirst-stoking tap stuff. Bechtell, which provoked an insurrection in
Cochabamba, Bolivia when it privitased water, shooting rates up 60%, is
now responsible for repairs to the damaged Basra Sweet water Canal.
According to an engineer I spoke to working on the project, said that
Bechtell were just doing minor repairs and that the canal was being
slowly re-abled rather then reconstructed and that workers are still
using inadequate sanctions-weary equipment.

The feedback from the management of all the plants and stations affected
by the workers protests was basically: 'Our hands are tied. It's a CPA
ruling'. And indeed, the occupation government has instituted its own
laws, including the lowering of public sector wages. Emergency payments
were $60, $100, $120 and $220 at the beginning of the Occupation. Now the
lowest wage on the CPA 130-position table is 69,000 ID ($40) with three
grades and 31 positions to be undergone before a worker can reach the
lowest previous CPA emergency payment of $60 equal to a Grade 9, Step
1 102,000 ID. Order 30 on Reform of Salaries and Employment Conditions of
State Employees also eliminated all previous house, food, family, risk
and location subsidies.

Electricity sector union reps, including Najebeeya's Hashimiya Masin
Hussein, visited Basra's Governor, Wael Abdul Lahtif and informed him of
their resolution on the CPA wagescale. 'If our wages are not corrected we
will stop all the signs of life here, we will shut down all the
electricity in Basra'. And if the leccie cuts out, after three or four
days, so do the gas and oil plants, businesses, shops, and hotels. The
current strike threats echo those of the Southern Oil Company Union two
weeks ago, which had the Oil Minister scarpering to Basra to hold
emergency talks with union heads in order to avert the promised walk-out
and armed worker resistance in the eventuality of troops taking over
pumps. SOC Union members drafted their own wagetable in response to the
CPA dictated one and demanded it be accepted on pain of armed, if
necessary, strike action at every SOC location. All workers were returned
to emergency pay levels immediately and the Unions new wagetable will be
implemented next month, as demanded.

The Electricity Sector union is advising, co-operating and co-ordinating
with the SOC Union, but, their job is harder due to lack of managerial
support. In SOC, the General Director fully supported the Union's
autonomous wage table.

The Governor of Basra took the union's demands seriously and wrote a
secret memo marked 'urgent' to the Minister of Energy, advising him to
heed the strike threat and to return workers to the emergency payment
system ASAP. He urged a fast response and told him formally that if the
Ministry does not delay the implementation of the CPA wagetable then
there will be a major strike in Basra. The memo ends with 'Please give
this issue the most important consideration'. It was also copied to the
Governing Council.

The delegation went on to tell the governor, 'We are considering the
benefit of our country but we are also putting it in our minds the
benefit of the workers. We have come to let you know our plans out of
respect for you and because you represent Basra people, but if there is
no result from our negotiations, we will go on total strike'. Further
points include equal pay for women, training and status elevation for
women, maternity payment, no nightshift work, and full nursery and
childcare facilities to be present in all workplaces.

Asked how the unions will respond if they are forced to take strike
action, Samir Hanoon, a negotiator and Vice President of the Federation
of Iraqi Trade Unions Basra explained, 'Us unionists hope that this
strike can be conducted safely and by the law. If we cannot win through
the legal procedures, if there is no positive result for our demands, we
will take actions riots, protests, demonstrations and total shut-downs.
We realize that there may be some sacrifices but we are ready to accept
these for the sake of our demands. Our real problem now is with the CPA,
with Bremer'.


Hassan Jum'a Head of SOC Union 00965 973 8243
Ewa Jasiewicz 00965 789 5523

Ewa in Basra
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