Interview with Felah Alwan, by David Bacon
April 18, 2005
t r u t h o u t | Interview
On March 18, the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq, one of Iraq's three trade union federations, announced the formation of the Iraqi Freedom Congress. The union called it "a borad organization committeed to establishing a free, secular and non-ethnic government in Iraq," composed of "political parties, trade unions, people's councils, associations and institutuions." The FCWUI sees the presnt situation as a "civil abyss," in which "the fabric of the civil society in Iraq has been torn apartr under the US occupation and the domination of the Islamic, tribal and political gangsters."
In the following interview, the president of the Federation of Workers' Councils, Felah Alwan, explains the way the union proposes to end Iraq's occupation, and the occupation's impact on workers.
Q: What political process can end the occupation?
F: Iraq is now in a state of anarchy. There are no civil institutions. There's nothing except the occupation forces and the government. The structure of the government imposed by the occupation forces has been divided along lines of ethnicity and religion. That makes some people believe that there is popular support for it.
Our society may be headed for civil war between religious groups. We call for the organization of a Congress of Liberation, including all the political powers in Iraq, to end the occupation and rebuild civil society. This Congress would include all groups, and would have the power to end the rule of the occupation. One way to end the occupation itself would be for the forces of the United Nations to keep the peace.
Q: So you think UN troops should replace the US military forces?
F: If the current troops withdraw, there may be a need for another military force, especially from countries that haven't participated in the occupation. They would supervise new elections, to help the Iraqi people elect their government, instead of the election that just happened. The main thing is to end the occupation, and all this would take place afterwards. But the occupation will never end until we can hold a congress of all the powers in Iraq that make up civil society.
Q: What was the attitude of the members of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq toward the January elections in Iraq?
F: Our federation issued a statement criticizing the way the elections were conducted. We said that for people to choose between more than one alternative, they would have to know the programs of the different political parties and groups. This hasn't happened in Iraq. So this was a violation of the right of the people. Most women in Iraq outside the capital in the rural areas can't read or write. So the supervisors of the election centers there themselves filled out the ballots for the parties they wanted.
As an example, one important Shiite cleric told people to participate, and said that those who boycotted the voting would go to hell. This was an intervention by religious orders, threatening people if they refused to participate. Sistani also threatened people with hell if they refused to vote for the electoral list of the group of Shiite parties. On the other hand, the party of the Prime Minister [Issad Allawi] waged a propaganda campaign telling people that if the election failed, everyone who boycotted or refused to participate would be punished. In the cities, in areas under the hegemony of the Islamist militia, people were threatened if they refused to participate or if they didn't vote for the list of the Shiite candidates of Sistani's party.
So the election took place without a real desire on the part of the voters. People were also afraid that the election centers would be attacked, and even that people would be beheaded. In this case, it is unfair to call this an election. It was a ridiculous thing.
We tried to enter one of the centers to take pictures, and the armed men there prevented us from doing that. They stopped people from going in to see what was happening. The supervisors and the supporters of the armed militia called on people to support their alternative, and no other, especially the list of Sistani. In Kurdistan, people were already announcing the result of the election before it happened.
So we called on workers to boycott these elections, because people were divided according to their ethnicity, language and religion. Its purpose was to impose the American project on Iraq, and give legitimacy to the government imposed by the Americans and the occupying coalition. The same parties we saw in the old Governing Council will remain in power, and the political balance will remain the same. They called on people to participate to give this legitimacy.
We do know that many workers in the State Leather Industry Factory, and in others, boycotted the election. But we don't know the exact number, because in Iraq we're prevented from knowing such things. I can prove that a large number of workers boycotted the elections. But the religious workers, especially those who follow Sistani, were given religious orders to vote. That is the main why a large number of religious people took part.
D: What is the economic situation of workers in Iraq today?
F: The large number unemployed forces people to work under very bad conditions, and for very low wages. For example, agricultural workers are paid less than 100,000 Iraqi dinars a month. That's about $70. The cost of fuel has increased very rapidly, and makes transportation very difficult. The conditions are very dangerous. Outside of Baghdad, workers in the other governates can only get jobs through political parties, especially those in the government. And they require workers to join their party. Before the election, some parties told people that if they voted for them, they'd give people jobs.
The large number of unemployed makes workers afraid to lose their jobs. Our workers struck a chemical plant in Baghdad. The administration, with another so-called union, threatened their jobs, and even threatened to arrest them. So the people abandoned their demands for higher wages and better conditions. In the State Leather Industry Factory, workers only make $100-150 a month. They do dangerous work, and some lose their fingers on sharp instruments, and are denied any compensation. It is a state-owned company, so the administration threatened to arrest workers, saying they had no right to organize a union. Buit the workers organized two strikes in January in spite of that.
In the villages, people work for $1 a day. On construction sites in Nasariya, 100 miles south of Baghdad, they get 6000 dinars, or $4-4.50 a day, in very bad conditions. They work seven days a week. When we called for one day of rest, the administration refused. "We need to finish the building," they said. And we found out that this building is for soldiers, so people were in danger of being killed at any moment by the armed groups. Four explosions took place while they were working. The workers were attacked because they were working on a building for the US Army. The gangs placed bombs on the site, and the Italians discovered three of them. But one exploded. Even there, the companies try to stop people from joining unions by threatening to fire them.
D: Has the economic situation gotten better over the past year?
F: The prices have gone up very rapidly. Kerosene rose so much that a worker can't buy it. Transport also increased a lot, because the price of fuel went up. Vegetables and food went up because transport went up, and because it's dangerous and expensive to transport it goods. All of this puts a lot of pressure on the wages of the workers.
Q: How was your union formed?
F: Our union came out of the Union of Unemployed of Iraq. We had an 18-day demonstration at the start of the occupation, for unemployment insurance or jobs. Workers started to organize themselves on their own. They were very courageous.
Our organization was founded in the electricity, textile railway, and services industries. The main problem has been how to struggle against the old administration in the factories, and to raise the wages. Our focus from the beginning has been on the daily life issues. We've held a lot of seminars, and prepared our own proposal for the labor coude. The tried to get the Minister of Labor to accept it, but the government already had its own agenda.
People are beginning to see the trade union movement as one made up of workers themselves, not related to the authorities. We have a weak trade union tradition among workers now, because workers see unions as part of the government. The authorities compound this problem by intervening in the trade union movement, with legislation that gives support to one organization and not others. Trade unions are being used by political parties to play a role in Iraq.