Workers strike and demonstrate in Basra

This is the latest in a series of incidents of worker unrest in Iraq’s second largest refinery. Iraq’s oil unions, which are banned under remaining Saddam Hussein-era laws, have demanded better pay and working conditions. The Oil Ministry, however, said that the refinery was the wrong target for the demands, which are mandated by the Finance Ministry.

In the past few months, workers and management have held talks which have often neared settlement and then broken off. A strike was scheduled for February but was canceled after negotiations restarted.

Last week as many as 700 workers at the 150,000 barrel per day refinery 16 kilometers west of Basra held a three-hour strike.

They demanded SRC Director General Abdul Hussein Nasir be dismissed, as well as the finance director Karima Hussein Thajil. They called for 80 percent, rather than the current 70 percent, of the company’s budget for salaries go to the workers; that food consumed during work hours be paid for and that work hours be reduced.

“The board consists of two men elected from the company staff and eight from the oil ministry,” said Hassan Jumaa, head of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions.

“We think that to have just two elected board members is not enough. The system is still working on the same old regime laws,” Jumaa said.

An anonymous unionist commenting on the decision to strike again on Wednesday said, “the negotiations with the Basra provincial council and the oil ministry and the SRC staff have failed.”

He added, “They did not listen to our demands,” and said that the annual payment of 14 billion Iraqi dinars to the company staff should be at least 24 billion. There was, he said, no sign that senior officials would be dismissed.

However, another union member, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “I am trying to call my colleagues to stop the protests because local police and oil police are already deployed there.”

He said that he believed police had a list of people to arrest, adding, “it seems we live in a police state again, in the way that they treat the demonstrators.”

Union leader Hassan Jumaa condemned the rumored presence of security forces. “To deploy security forces and to issue warrants of arrests against the protestors,” he said, “is normal in the new democracy and in the state of Maliki. This is the new democracy.”

Assem Jihad, a spokesman for the Oil Ministry, told the Iraq Oil Report, “it is times of democracy and people have the right to express their opinions and demands, but these demands should be legitimate and realistic.”

It is the Finance Ministry, said Jihad, who fixes rates of pay for workers, and not officials at the SRC or even Oil Ministry officials. These Finance Ministry directions must be followed by law.

“We hope also that these protests are not affected by political parties,” added Jihad. “It should always be professional, not politicized.”

Independent unions in the public sector, forbidden under Saddam Hussein, are still not formally recognized by the government and frequently clash with official policy, including actively campaigning against provisions in the draft federal oil law.

At the protest last week, they renewed demands that they be paid allocations from the profits of the company from as far back as 2007.

A unionist leader, Alaa al-Basri, said on March 18, “All the units of the company stopped working for three hours. But the head deputy of the Basra provincial council and the head of the oil and gas committee of the council went to the refinery and met the staff and promised the protesters to refer their demand to the federal government.”

The workers, said Basri, agreed to go back to work until Tuesday March 23 at least, before deciding to strike on March 24.

The demands for payments and new management are unlikely to be successful said another union member last week, who wished to remain anonymous.

“I do not think that the local authorities or the oil ministry will respond quickly and positively to the oil workers and staff demands,” he said.

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