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Commentary: Driving change in Kurdistan

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Page context: Home > Transport International Magazine > Issue 20 July 2005 > Driving change in Kurdistan

Bilal Malkawi finds trade unionism flourishing on the roads of Northern Iraq

I travelled from Amman to Arbil via Baghdad, with my colleague Mr Keir eddin Boslah. We took a two-hour flight with Serve Air, an American airline comprising two aircraft, each of which can take 25 passengers. A full 30 minutes of the flight was taken up with landing. Due to security constraints, the captain has to land from 23,000 feet using only 15 square metres to manoeuvre – as though the plane were a helicopter.

Arriving in Baghdad we had to take our luggage from the aircraft to the airport, and get our passport stamped before returning to the same aircraft ready for departure to Arbil. Here Mr Hangaw Abdallah, president of the Kurdistan TU – the national centre – would be waiting for us.

After the second gulf war in 1991, Kurdish peshmarga forces succeeded in driving the Iraqi army from Iraqi Kurdistan and gaining day-to-day independent governance for the region. Two separate government administrations then formed – one in Sulaymaniah, and the other in Arbil. Sadly the relationship between them was tense, and even erupted into violence in 1994. However the two national trade union centres, which also developed in these two provinces, enjoyed a good relationship from the beginning.

Into the open

At that stage, many trade union leaders where hiding in the mountains, away from the Iraqi soldiers, who chased them day and night. Now, since the fall of the regime, they have begun organising workers in six sectors – transport, textiles, public services, mechanics, construction, and agriculture.

The biggest unionised sector is transport, which organises workers into five unions – one in each of Arbil, Dhouk, Soran, Kerkouk and Sulaymaniah – though so far only taxi, bus and truck drivers are represented. The railways were completely destroyed during the war, while Arbil airport, has only recently converted from military to civilian status, and its new airport workers are yet to be organised.

What really amazed me during my visit, was the degree of capacity and strength the Kurdish trade unions have clearly gained during the last difficult years. They have begun to negotiate and bargain strongly on behalf of the workers, and to influence their day-to-day work. The deputy minister of labor in Kurdistan noted recently that the transport union is following up all drivers’ issues on a daily basis.

I took the opportunity to meet with union committees at workplaces all over Kurdistan, and introduced the work of the ITF globally, including in the region.

Everyone I met showed great interest in knowing more about what is happening around the world, and asked if we knew about the many foreign companies that are beginning to invest in the region. Now that this oil-rich region is safe, they anticipate that most of the public entities will soon be privatised. One of their major problems is the language barrier – most speak only Kurdish, with little Arabic, and no English.

However they have big hopes as citizens and trade unionists. They are keen to be part of international society, to get more education, to share their experiences with those in other parts of the movement, and to join in global solidarity actions. They told me they would like all international organisations to go to Kurdistan and see for themselves how safe the region is, how friendly the people are, and how strong the unions are.

Bilal Malkawi is head of the ITF Arab office in Amman, Jordan.

Section home:
Issue 20 July 2005

Other pages for Issue 20 July 2005:
Comment: Fighting Back and Winning | ITF launches new global website | Value for money | Protecting our waterfront | The fight for true democracy | Enter the hit squads | This is why we joined a union | Transport goes transnational | From wellhead to wheel | Competition gone mad | Putting the seafarer first | End this railway nightmare | We can help to defeat poverty | Readers’ thoughts on poverty | Working life

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