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Occupational Hazards

Local Matters


Published June 22, 2005 at 6:10 p.m.

BURLINGTON -- With all the "U.S. out of Iraq" banners, and the chanting -- "No justice, no peace! U.S. out of the Middle East!" -- the march down Church Street last Sunday looked like just another of Burlington's frequent antiwar protests. It wasn't.

It's true, the 70 or so activists -- including State Representative Jason Lorber and Mayor Peter Clavelle -- spoke out against the war. But the event was actually part of a nationwide tour of Iraqi labor leaders, who came to the U.S. to raise awareness about the plight of Iraqi workers and their unions. They say the U.S. and Iraqi governments are helping multinational corporations at the expense of working Iraqis.

Speaking through a translator in a phone interview on Friday, Adnan Rashed, a 56-year-old Iraqi metalworker and representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, said the unrelenting violence in his homeland isn't the only threat to Iraqi security. "We consider privatization of the public sector the greatest danger to the Iraqi working people," he said.

Nearly half of the 6.5 million working Iraqis are employed in the public sector. The Iraqi government, with support from the U.S., is poised to privatize much of it. And not all of those jobs will go to Iraqis -- Rashed cites an example of a Kuwaiti oil company that brought 1000 of its Asian workers to the oil fields in Basra.

This comes at a time when unemployment is a major problem in Iraq. A May study by the Iraqi government and the United Nations pegged the unemployment rate at 27 percent, but a June 20 article in the Washington Post reports that number is far too low. U.S. Labor Against the War, which sponsored the Iraqi labor delegation's trip, puts it closer to 50 percent, and as high as 70 percent in some areas. Labor activists argue that cutting government jobs will make that number rise, and large numbers of unemployed Iraqis can only help the insurgency.

Rashed also says he's concerned that the Iraqi government is not doing enough to make the country union-friendly. Saddam Hussein outlawed unions in 1987 and, though they're legal now, Rashed says Hussein's anti-labor laws are still being enforced. He points out that, with their power to organize diminished, unions won't be able to fight privatization and outsourcing.

He says he came here to ask U.S. citizens to call for an end to the occupation, and to support the trade union movement in Iraq. "Expose the privatization schemes," Rashed urges. "Especially in the oil sector. Oil is the national treasure, and under no circumstances in Iraq will we give it up."

His message reached Charles Parsley, a retired minister of the United Church of Christ. Parsley attended Sunday's rally wearing a blue Army cap decorated with the infantryman's medal he earned in World War II. He also wore a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Peace" in Hebrew, Arabic and English. "I'm upset about what I know about the U.S. in Iraq," said the vet. "And I'm upset that they're outsourcing jobs instead of hiring Iraqis to rebuild their own country."