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June 24, 2004

In Iraq, It's the Jobs, Stupid

Why has Iraq been reduced to a politics of ethnic and religious rivalry? This is a country with a rich history of secular politics, yet all we hear about are religious factions.

At least one reason is that classic non-religious institutions, specifically Iraqi labor unions, have been deliberately sidelined by the Bush administration. And the lack of jobs for Iraqis mean that classic economic interests are not undergirding politics. Instead, the mass of unemployed workers are organizing under the only banner likely to help them survive-- namely the primal support groups of tribe and religion.

Yesterday, a key report on the jobs situation in Iraq was released, produced by EPIC (Education for Peace In Iraq), with information you won't see in the mainstream press, which mostly ignores anyone in Iraq without a Koran or a rifle.

Here is the economic situation now:

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime has not improved economic conditions for Iraq’s working families. Under U.S. occupation, the Iraqi formal economy shrank again by one-third in 2003. Workers who are fortunate enough to be employed are still paid according to the wage scale that was imposed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, but actual take-home pay for some workers has been halved due to lost bonuses, benefits, and profit-sharing payments.
Both the lack of security and legal rules established under the Bush administration prevent workers from organizing in unions to argue for better working conditions:
Continued instability and political violence hinder workers from building political, civic, and union organizations to give voice to their needs and interests. Under present conditions, public meetings and demonstrations associated with normal union activity are risky. Furthermore, there are no legal mechanisms for workers to establish collective bargaining or defend their workplace rights. The lack of such rights suppresses Iraqis’ ability to negotiate fair wages and better working conditions vital steps for workers to play a role in a vibrant Iraq.
Starving Local Firms: But the most outrageous policy of the Bush administration is a prohibition on allowing existing Iraq firms to receive any funding for reconstruction of the country.

Repeat that, just in case you aren't aware of the policy. If you work for Halliburton in the United States, you can get a job reconstructing Iraq. If you work for established state-owned firms in Iraq, your firm can't receive a contract:

Instead of directing reconstruction work to Iraqi firms that employ Iraqi workers, the U.S. occupation authorities rig the process to favor big corporations from the United States and its short list of selected countries. Adding to the problem, most foreign companies now appear to be choosing to return expatriate Iraqi workers for both skilled and unskilled positions instead of hiring in-country...

CPA rules forbid contracting with Iraqi “publicly owned companies,” yet in many cases these are the only Iraqi-based firms qualified to do the work. Qualified Iraqi water-system engineers familiar with their own infrastructure sit idle while Bechtel engineers struggle to repair the water systems — supposedly a top priority of the U.S. occupation.27 In his recent report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), military strategist Anthony Cordesman wrote: “The U.S. reliance on contractors, rather than Iraqis, makes everyone involved in aid and reconstruction a natural target."

Continuing Hussein's Labor Policies: And here is the real civic outrage. The Bush administration has invited mullahs into the process to write the national constitution, but labor unions and other workers groups have been excluded from the process of writing the labor code for the country:
Thus far, Iraqi unions have been largely sidelined from the CPA-dominated process of drafting a new labor code; the results of discussions between the U.S. officials and the Iraqi Labor Ministry regarding a new labor code to implement workers’ rights remain unclear.
The Bush administration didn't like Hussein, but they apparently like his 1987 labor law rules that prohibit the 500,000 workers in state-run firms from striking, since they have yet to repeal them.

Read the report. Through deliberate impoverishment of its workers and the sidelining of all democratic institutions other than the mosques, the Bush administration is guaranteeing that a future Iraq government will be dominated by sectarian religious disputes, rather than based on secular, economic institutions.

Posted by Nathan at June 24, 2004 07:20 AM