WASHINGTON, Aug. 16 (UPI) -- U.S. labor leaders rallying outside the Iraqi Embassy in Washington pressed the prime minister to uphold workers' rights as oil workers are targeted in Basra.
Iraq's Oil Ministry has called the oil unions illegal and barred its departments and companies from any dealings with them.
Dozens rallied in front of the embassy Thursday as a letter from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was presented to the embassy, demanding the government recognize the rights of workers.
"It is crucial that workers in Iraq have these basic rights recognized," said AFL-CIO International Department Director Barbara Shailor. The unions have demanded improved working conditions for months, as well as a voice in negotiations over an oil law they fear, if passed, would give foreign and private companies too much access to Iraq's oil.
With the third-largest oil reserves in the world and oil exports that fund nearly all the federal budget, Iraqis view their oil sector with pride.
But Iraq's government hasn't changed a Saddam Hussein-era law banning public sector workers from organizing.
"It's actually decades of tyranny that we're fighting against," said Shawna Bader-Blau, senior program officer for the Middle East at the Solidarity Center.
The constitution calls for a labor law, which has not been debated in Parliament yet. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is pushing the government to approve an oil law, among other legislation.
"That should be our benchmark, to bring international human rights and labor rights to Iraqi workers," said Denise Lombard of USLAW. She said Iraqi workers protested in the oil capital of Basra Thursday as well.
The oil unions went on strike in June. The government sent the security forces to surround them and issued arrest warrants for its leaders. No one was arrested, but the warrants still stand. Government and union officials negotiated an agreement, which may expire soon if no action is taken.
The Iraqi ambassador is in Iraq, and no one at the embassy was authorized to make a statement.
When asked about the oil minister's anti-union stance during an interview Tuesday, Ghaleb El-Anbaki, a top political officer at the embassy, said, “Till now, the democratic institutions are not fully fledged and functioning properly. Some of them are still in the process of trial and error.”
Ben Lando, UPI Energy Editor