By Rhodri Evans
One hundred and fifty trade Iraqi trade union activists — members of the General Union of Oil Employees, other trade unionists from the southern cities of Nasiriyah and Amara and Basra, and representatives of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions — came to a conference in Basra on 25-26 May to start organising a campaign against US-imposed plans to privatise the Iraqi economy.
Shortly before the conference, the Beirut Daily Star had reported (17 May): “Iraq’s Industry Ministry plans to partially privatise most of its 46 state-owned companies as part of the government’s plan to establish a liberal, free-market economy…
“The new commercial laws established by the Coalition Provisional Authority allow foreigners to own 100 percent of Iraqi businesses — the exceptions being those dealing with natural resources such as oil. Iraq has around 200 state-owned enterprises, and the government wants to partially privatise or completely sell off many of these.”
The process will not be as straightforward as the US government and its Iraqi friends hope. The Financial Times comments tartly (2 June): “The US and other [foreign aid] donors have prescribed privatisation and direct investment. However, even investors willing to risk their lives in Iraq would be ill advised to risk their assets. Investment laws are a patchwork of Saddam-era ordinances, which are expected to be replaced, and US coalition decrees, which are also temporary and may be illegal under international law. But parliament is not expected to pass new investment legislation, particularly in the oil sector, until late next year”.
The chaos gives space for Iraq’s new labour movement to organise a successful campaign, and the Basra conference could be a start.
At the conference, oil union organisers and leaders spoke about their experiences of independent reconstruction efforts, affirming that Iraqi workers had defended and rehabilitated their industry despite mass looting and deliberate degradation under the eyes of the occupying forces.
The final conference communiqué stated: “Iraq... lacks a stable political infrastructure and a clearly defined economic system on which the people can rely. This being so, the conference participants believe that the privatisation of the oil and industrial sectors, or of any part of them, will do great harm to the Iraqi people and their economy”.
It also called upon all states to remit the odious debts taken on in the name of Iraq by Saddam Hussein’s regime, “without conditions and without infringing the independence, sovereignty and economic self-governance of Iraq”. The creditor governments have been discussing a “deal” on the debt — but one which will scrap only the obviously irrecoverable part of that debt, leaving an amount which still burdens Iraq, in “return” for Iraq accepting IMF economic plans.