Lives: Basra History: Hassan Juma’a Awad is General Secretary of Iraq’s largest independent company. He represents around 30,000 workers across 10 unions in Nassiriyah, Amara, Maysan, Thi Qar and Basra. His recent solidarity tour aimed to raise awareness of Iraq’s reconstruction successes and push past the stigmas of conflict.
Looking exasperated, Hassan Juma’a Awad raises his brown eyes, folds his heavy hands together, and shrugs. On either side of him his translators bicker, wave their arms in die air frantically and contradict one other. He shrugs again and half smiles. As a trade unionist Awad is used to struggle. As an Iraqi, he’s seen a lot worse than this.
Awad is the president of the General Union of Oil Employees in Basra, an independent trade union that has fought for workers’ rights since the fall of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party. He is in the UK to meet British trade unionists and, as I speak to him, he is on the last leg of his trip; a lightning quick tour of Caledonia that includes a meeting with OilC -Scotland’s own radical union for oil workers.
The translators – one Palestinian, one British – keep battling over his words. At first they tell me he means one thing, then it changes into another. Bloodshed is mentioned but then, proverbially at least, the streets are swept clean in front of me. Awad rarely joins in. He speaks (passionately 1 think but it’s hard to tell without understanding Arabic), dien settles back to listen, his eyes shuttling between the translators, his bearing dignified if frustrated.
Eventually, I discover this is what he said: “The trade unions in the Southern Oil Company are in a very difficult situation and we are asking all international trade unions to help and to co-operate widi us. We are a free trade union, which does not belong to any political party, and we are independent,
“I believe that 80 per cent of the meetings I have had with the trade unions in Britain have been very successful. I don’t think they have been given enough good information about what is really going on in Iraq. I think the information I offered was good for them. After listening they promised to help us. The most important issue for me, and the union, is to develop training for die trade union workers in Iraq. The workers are now the most important thing of all.”
The men he represents have already scored an important victory. The Southern Oil Company Trade Union defeated the occupation’s administration, then under American Special Envoy Paul Bremer, in a battle over pay. The workers, unhappy with wage structures set by the administration, direatened to “shut down Iraq from north to south” by going on armed strike if their pay demands weren’t met. The threat succeeded in raising the lowest wages of oil workers in the South from 69,000 Iraqi Dinar per month to 102,000 per month.
Awad tells me about it and I try to work out if he feels proud, but it’s hard to tell. He is more like a statesman than the man on the street corner, the tub thumper of popular trade union legend. “That was the first victory we had, the first thing that made people care about the trade union,” he nods, as the translator repeats his words in a voice that is so much quieter than Awad’s own. “We believe we have to raise the living standards for workers and this is our first responsibility.”
Under Saddam, trade unions were little more than a front for state-sponsored oppression.
They were a convenient tool for monitoring; a perverse inversion of what they should be for. Trust, therefore, is a crucial issue. Those who lived under the Ba’adi dictatorship instinctively, and understandably, mistrust diose who claim to represent them. So rebuilding the workers’ faith in collective action is a tougher job than most.
Hearteningly though, Awad is optimistic: “My union was
formed through democratic elections and that was the first time that had happened. That very fact created trust. When the workers elected their leaders they could see that they cared about their interests and there is now a new exchange between the leaders and the workers. Now, we work together.”
But there is still a lot to leam, Awad explains. And that is why he is here. He hopes to soak up hundreds of years of British trade union history and experience and take the lessons back to Iraq where he can put them to invaluable use.
“We will be playing a big role in safeguarding oil workers’ rights in the south of Iraq, because the next stage of die fight is going to be more difficult. There will be a big role for our union to play in struggling against privatisation.”
He says the way the invasion turned into an occupation frustrated and disappointed him. Before any real change can happen, he argues, die occupation troops have to leave the country. The Iraqis are ready to manage their own affairs, he says, and even through die mild-mannered translator, he is blunt and determined. He says the elections which took place at the end of January are key.
“If diey are to bring any kind of success they will have to stop the occupation and get the troops to leave the country. Secondly, the Iraqi authorities have to make sure the coalition countries have no further influence over government.
“The new administration has to think about the economic interests of the Iraqi people first. They have to look after the country and care for it. If that happens tiien the Iraqi people can have hope and look forward to living a good life.”
After we’ve finished die interview Awad is due to speak at a political meeting. He seems slighdy nervous about it. Although his trip to Britain has been worthwhile, he has been frustrated by conversations that have drifted away from the practical, nitty-gritty of trade union organisation, towards larger political questions that make him uncomfortable. He is not here to speak about those things. He has, however, been heartened by the reception he’s received from the British people, especially the young.
He tells me about an article written by Iraq’s oil minister for Shell’s in-house magazine. The minister said 2005 would be the year for “greater dialogue” with western oil companies. Awad shakes his head; he never would have seen it if a group of young campaigners hadn’t pointed it out to him. The experience will be part of the message he takes back to Iraq with him.
“I will tell people in Iraq how much the British public supports ordinary Iraqis. I will tell diem about the number of people who are standing in solidarity with us throughout the occupation. I was pleased to find so many young British people who care so deeply about the situation in my country. The young people who are trying to stop die occupation and support Iraq’s – not me occupation’s – economic interests.”
By now, the translators have learned to agree on what Awad is really saying. They work as a team, one translating through one point, tiien the other chipping in for the next. Awad seems to enjoy the relative peace and quiet this new teamwork creates.
For Awad to be successful he will need all the conflict resolution experience he can get. But for now, with the interview finished and everything settled, he stands up, shakes my hand and says thank you in English. His accent is as gravely and determined as I thought it would be.
Interview by Peter John Meiklem
17 Mar. 2005 | The big issue in Scotland