The Middle East's two key exports these days seem terribly at odds with each other: oil, the lifeblood of the global economic order, and political unrest, in the form of protest movements rolling across the region. Occasionally, though, oil and dissent can mix, and workers may be channeling a bit of the Arab Spring into the petrol empires of Iraq and Iran.
A few weeks ago, the Federation of Workers Councils Unions of Iraq reported on unrest in the Kurdistan region, involving 174 workers of the Taq Taq Oil Operation Company. The conflict, according to the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions site, centers on charges of “a complete lack of equality for Kurdish workers” as well as fundamental abuses at the heart of the oil economy:
Workers are concerned at the complete absence of hazard protection in the workplace where the constant danger of hydrogen sulphide gas is said to threaten the workers lives. There is also said to be significant discrimination in treatment between the Kurdish and expatriate workers in terms of safety equipment and clothing provided as well as in both food and rest facilities.
Indeed we are informed that in scenes reminiscent of the apartheid era in South Africa expatriate workers have access to training and sports halls in their free time that local workers are refused access to and their living accommodation and restrooms are far inferior to those enjoyed by the expatriates. Expatriate worker wages are also considerably higher than those paid to Kurdish workers, many of whom are university and institute graduates.
Though Kurdistan is a relatively (and controversially) autonomous region, Kurdish workers' grievances are part of a wave of protests this year that speak to overarching labor struggles and the national economic and political crises that have paralyzed the fledgling government bodies.
While mass uprisings erupted in neighboring countries, Iraqi labor militated for basic rights on the job, reported the UK Telegraph in May. State workers at several oil fields revolted against unfair pay scales propped up by notorious multinational giants like BP:
Iraqi state oil workers tried to stop foreign workers entering the site at Rumaila, the country's biggest oil field amid a country-wide dispute about pay. The state workers have been protesting for some time about receiving lower pay than their colleagues at fields run by the international oil companies.
According to the Iraq Oil Report, an internal union memo said workers would also try to stop entry of foreign workers at Zubair, developed by ENI, and Majnoon, developed by Royal Dutch Shell, as part of a "boycott day". The workers are risking arrest, since unions and striking are illegal in the country.
A BP spokesman said any industrial action had no impact on operations.
Sabotage of pipelines and strikes in Iraq's oil industry are common, despite success among the foreign oil majors in increasing production.
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In other words, business has continued as usual for multinational firms plundering Iraq's oil wealth while capitalizing on anemic labor protections—a legacy of the dictatorship that persists despite (or because of) foreign-orchestrated regime change.
According to the ITUC's global survey on trade union rights, foreign corporate dominion in Basra looms large even as the U.S. military supposedly draws back. But organizers continue to speak out despite the crackdowns:
The state-run [South Refineries Company / Southern Oil Company] brought charges against two prominent oil union leaders. Hassan Juma, president of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, and Faleh Abood Umara, the federation’s general secretary, were accused of “impeding the work” at oil developments in Basra and “urging workers to stand against senior management”. According to officials, the union leaders had made threatening remarks directed at foreign oil companies, thereby harming the country’s economy.
The occupation forms the backdrop to Iraq's labor troubles and general hostility to dissent. Michael Eisenscher of U.S. Labor Against the War, one of the few groups that actively connects labor issues to transnational peace movements, said that for many ordinary workers, the struggles under Saddam Hussein's regime, the U.S. occupation, and now, the fractious reconstituted government, have remained constant:
The government continues to enforce the Saddam-era 1987 law that bans unions for public sector and enterprise workers, including the oil sector. They have frozen union bank accounts, raided and closed down offices, arrested some union leaders (teachers), punitively transferred leaders to isolate them from their base, filed criminal charges against two leaders of the Oil Union Federation, imposed a ban on foreign travel without prior government consent for union leaders. Harassment has been escalating over the last year or more.
Nextdoor, Iran's calcified autocracy illustrates the flipside of failed foreign policy: increasingly combative isolation. But workers there also suffer labor injustices in various sectors. From late September through early October, thousands of petrochemical workers at government-run facilities in Bandar (Port) Imam in southern Iran went on strike, voicing the grievances of temporary contract workers, who, according to the International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran, have risked persecution to demand “the right to collective bargaining and direct and permanent contacts with employers.” Though the strike has ended, unrest continues, and there's little assurance that workers' demands will be met, the Alliance stated that the Bandar Imam campaigns can “[serve] as a benchmark for future strike actions elsewhere."
Homayoun Pourzad with the Network of Iranian Labor Associations told In These Times in a correspondence, “the Iranian regime clamps down severely on any organizing drive but it is doubly more ruthless when it comes to the oil workers.” But with political tumult heating up in surrounding countries, he added, “The government can not permanently keep the status quo by force of repression. … the situation could literally change overnight once the winds of change in the region hit the Iranian regime and force it to make concessions to labor for basic rights like ability to organize.”
The winds of change aren't blowing in from the West, though. The liberal backslapping among superpowers over the Arab Spring has been undergirded by fierce reaction, which is now fueling a counterrevolutionary backspin. So it's no coincidence that oppression still reigns in two perfect case studies of failed interventionism: Iraq's military devastation and Iran's bitter alienation (plus countless other Washington-sponsored social crises dotting the planet).
Yet indigenous social movements do survive in these countries, challenging both corrupt rulers and the neoliberal orthodoxy of foreign “liberators.” If grassroots activists can hold the line of labor's resistance, their battles may kindle some hope of healing the scars left by other wars.