Wesam Chaseb: In Iraq, ‘Change Will Start from Unions’

Wesam Chaseb: In Iraq, ‘Change Will Start from Unions’

In 2003 as the Iraq War began, Wesam Chaseb, a young man with a college degree in physics, chose a job with the Iraq Federation of Trade Union (IFTU) Department of Training. His father had been involved in the labor movement until 1981, two years after Saddam Hussein took power. Under his 24-year reign, the rights of workers to form unions were rolled back, including a 1987 ban on collective bargaining, and union leaders were targeted and often killed. His deposition left uncertainty and potential for the future of worker rights in Iraq.

Despite the social divisions that the Iraq war has brought into focus, the Iraqi labor movement has built unity and solidarity among working people throughout the conflict. Merging with two other labor federations, the IFTU became the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), and in 2015—after 12 years of movement-building and three years of collaboration with Parliament—the labor movement pushed a new labor code that defines the right to strike and includes the country’s first legal protections for victims of workplace sexual harassment. The law went into effect in February 2016.

Chaseb, who has managed the Solidarity Center’s work with Iraqi unions and workers since 2011, is particularly proud of the law’s prohibition on sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace; its protection against arbitrary dismissals and the freedom to bargain collectively and strike.

“The first time, some said, ‘No,’ we don’t have sexual harassment in Iraq, we are not like other countries,” explains Chaseb. But after hearing back from women’s committees in several unions that had been established to review the labor code, union leaders became convinced legal protection of women union members against sexual harassment on the job was necessary.

“The leaders listened to the women,” he said.

The outcomes of Chaseb’s labor organizing may depend on lots of external factors, but he feels certain that his work is supporting one of Iraq’s best hopes for peace and social cohesion.

“I keep working with Iraqi unions,” he said, “because I’ve seen that they are the real face of Iraq. There is no discrimination among workers. They ask for an Iraq without violations of human rights.”

As a result, Chaseb says, “the change will start from unions.”

Passage of a new labor code was a significant step forward, but Chaseb is working with Iraqi unions on several other initiatives, including application of the new labor code to public-sector workers, as well as a Freedom of Association law that will bring the country in compliance with International Labor Organization (ILO) standards.


New Video Documents Iraq Labor Law Passage

New Video Documents Iraq Labor Law Passage

Iraq unions successfully pushed for a new labor law because of their unified solidarity and with strong support of the U.S. and global union movements, according to a new documentary.

“Finally, after 12 years of persistent and consistent work, the Iraq labor movement was able to succeed with their international partners and with Iraq civil society … to get worker rights in Iraq,” says Michael Zweig, speaking in the video. Zweig is director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at Stony Brook University, which produced the video.

“It’s a very big deal,” he said.

Light from the Darkness: The New Iraq Labor Law” looks at the key role of U.S. Labor against the War in rallying support of the U.S. union movement in support of Iraqi workers’ struggle for labor rights after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

“Labor solidarity was something a … steel worker or paper worker or janitor in the United States could understand. They knew that every worker in the world should be treated fairly,” said Gene Bruskin, co-founder of USLAW.

Also speaking the video, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau says, “the role of U.S. Labor against the War was so important in galvanizing the support of American workers for…reaching out and educating thousands of thousands of American workers through their unions around the U.S. and around the world through their global outreach.”

Passed by the Iraqi Parliament in August, the labor law allows for collective bargaining, limits child labor, improves rights for migrant workers, provides better protections against discrimination at work and is the country’s first legislation to address sexual harassment at work. The law also enshrines the right to strike, banned since 1987.

Says Bader-Blau: “The Solidarity Center and U.S. Labor against the War were there for Iraqi workers.”

Check out “Light from Darkness.”

Women Make Historic Gains in New Iraq Labor Law

Women Make Historic Gains in New Iraq Labor Law

Women workers made important gains under Iraq’s new labor law, the country’s first ever to prohibit sexual harassment at the workplace. The law clearly defines sexual harassment and specifies penalties for perpetrators. Women union activists led their unions in fighting for this protection.

“The law also addresses the arbitrary dismissal of workers and other issues that will serve the interests of working women, which should encourage more women to work and enjoy those protections and rights,” says Saba Qasim Yousef, an officer in the women’s affairs department of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU). Yousef was among many women taking an active role in the union movement’s labor law campaign.

Crucially, the law aims for gender equality, specifically regarding wages, hiring and working conditions. It requires employers to provide onsite child care, and increases paid maternity leave to 14 weeks, with the option of additional unpaid leave for up to a year. Employers must allow woman workers to return to their jobs or equivalent positions.

In effect on February 1, the law was a massive victory for Iraq workers and their unions and followed the Iraq union movement’s three-year campaign for passage of a labor law in line with International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions. The Solidarity Center provided essential support to the union movement throughout the campaign.

Iraq, Solidarity Center, May Day, human rights

Iraq’s labor law includes protection against workplace sexual harassment. Credit: GFITU

Women Union Members Took Key Role in Drafting Labor Law
The labor law’s provisions addressing gender equality came about because women union activists and leaders participated in all aspects of the campaign—drafting amendments, taking part in conferences and meetings with parliament and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MoLSA) and advocating for its passage.

“Women had a leading role in the campaign to restructure the law draft by participating in the workshops and seminars,” says Ilham Abdul Ma’boud Majid, president of the Telecommunications Union, General Federation of Workers and Unions in Iraq (GFWUI), Basra Branch.

“Also, they were watching the developments in the process, despite their obligations as employees and mothers at home and the long distances they needed to travel to attend those activities,” she said. “They were motivated by the idea of having a modern labor law that will protect them from all kinds of discrimination.”

Labor Law Will Encourage Women to Join Workforce
The law’s new protections “will have a positive impact in increasing the number of women workers and guaranteeing their strong presence in the labor market, by treating them fairly at their workplaces with equality in terms of assignments and jobs,” says Alya’a Hussien Mahood, women’s affairs officer for the General Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions (GFITU).

The final draft, passed late last year, retained the unions’ input and is a significant victory for all workers because it expands coverage to workers not included in the civil service law. This means that workers in the public sector who are not civil servants have the chance to join and establish their own unions.

The law allows for collective bargaining, including for workers without a union, and provides a good frame for freedom of association and protections for unions and their members. It further limits child labor, improves rights for migrant workers, provides better protections against discrimination at work and is the country’s first legislation to address sexual harassment at work. The law also enshrines the right to strike, banned since 1987. (Highlights of the law’s improvements.)

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