The Word Bank released a draft labor safeguard in July 2014. After consultations, a revised version will be released in 2015. The global labor movement and the International Labor Organization (ILO) are concerned about some significant gaps in the draft labor safeguard, specifically that it does not guarantee freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively, and that the safeguards would not apply to contract workers. This is in stark contrast to the labor safeguards of other lending bodies, such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the African Bank for Reconstruction and Development. While the World Bank professes a reluctance to infringe upon a country’s sovereignty, the vast majority of World Bank’s members are also ILO member states, and therefore already committed to the principle of freedom of association.
The need for a World Bank mechanism to support loan recipients to uphold this principle is illustrated by the example of the electricity sector in Iraq. In 2007, the World Bank awarded the Iraqi government a $124 million loan for reconstructing and rehabilitating the electricity sector. During the loan period, the Iraqi government carried out a campaign against the electricity unions in an attempt to silence them for bringing to light the issue of widespread corruption in the sector. As workers’ right to freedom of association was stifled, so was the ability to raise concerns with the project through a clear grievance mechanism, such as those guaranteed through IFC private-sector loans.
Deterioration of Electricity Supply Spurs Widespread Protests
In 2008, the electricity unions began organizing rallies throughout Iraq to protest the deterioration of the services provided to citizens, called for sectoral reform and decried financial and administrative corruption reportedly to be rampant at the ministry. In public statements, the unions reported false contracts and power stations that were supposed to be built, but never were. In mid-June 2010 a wave of protests and demonstrations against the ill-equipped electric power generation and distribution system swept the country. In Basra, two demonstrators were killed and three others wounded. Although the official media reported this as an accident, when the Provincial Council security fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd, demonstrators said the security forces opened fire on the protestors.
As a result of these incidents, former Minister of Electricity Kareem Waheed resigned from office on June 21, 2010. One day after his resignation, the Iraqi Council of Ministers commissioned Hussein al-Shahristani to serve as the acting Minister of Electricity in addition to his oil portfolio. On July 20, 2010, shortly after Shahristani took charge of the Ministry, the Ministry issued Order No. 22244, which banned freedom of association in the ministry and stopped all forms of communication with the trade unions in the ministry or in any of the affiliated directorates and areas.
The ministry ordered all electricity departments and directorates to shut down the trade union offices and seize their assets, documents, property and computer software. The most severe form of repression was to grant the right to the relevant directorates to take immediate legal measures and refer anyone threating or using violence or vandalism to court by virtue of Articles 2 and 4 of Anti-Terrorism Law No. 13 of 2005. Treating trade unionists as terrorists set a dangerous precedent whereby any sit-in, picket or strike could be interpreted as an act of vandalism, and any trade unionists involved in such an act could be prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Law.
Retaliation against Unions
Based on this new directive, the army and police forces raided the electricity trade union headquarters in several governorates, particularly in Basra, Thi-Qar, and at the ministry’s headquarters in Baghdad. These forces broke into the trade unions’ offices, broke their doors, changed the locks and seized all the trade unions’ assets and documents. But the Ministry of Electricity never produced evidence for the accusations it made against the electricity unions, and no trade unionist has been taken to court over these accusations.
The denial of freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively in the electricity sector in Iraq has been devastating for the unions and workers and the nation. The government-led public misinformation campaign accusing unions of corruption and terrorism tarnished the unions’ reputation, and led to a significant decline in membership. Electricity-sector workers are suffering a backsliding of working conditions previously established through union efforts. For example, the return of a large temporary workforce that has fewer benefits and no union representation. Iraqi citizens are suffering, as the government continues to deal ineffectively with electricity supply issues, an area in which workers are important stakeholders and valuable partners in suggesting and implementing system improvements.
This example highlights workers calling for government accountability in the face of severe repression and how unions take an essential role in the reconstruction of a democratic society. Civil society organizations play an essential role in ensuring good governance in a country, an observation the World Bank has emphasized repeatedly in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring.” The World Bank should demonstrate commitment to ensuring space for robust civil society institutions by adopting safeguards that would protect freedom of association in all its lending.