Report on Hassan Juma’a Awad’s Visit to Britain

by Ewa Jasiewicz

This report was forwarded by U.S. Labor Against the War, March 9, 2005. It has been edited for Labor Standard.

President of the General Union of Oil Employees in Basra, Hassan Juma’a Awad came to the UK for a two-week awareness-raising visit in February 2005. Iraq Occupation Focus (IOF) organized the tour, as part of its commitment to supporting grassroots movements in Iraq. The TUC [Trades Union Congress, the main British labor federation] paid hotel expenses and part of the flight and food expenses.

The IOF has been running a fundraising appeal for the Southern Oil Company trade union since last October. See:


The General Union of Oil Employees in Basra has its roots in the Southern Oil Company Trade Union, which was established after the occupation began in April 2003. Activists first organized secretly, uncertain how occupation forces would respond. The goal of the union, as Hassan puts it, was to “reorganize the relationship between workers and the company administration in order to fight for workers’ rights.” Hassan himself has worked for the Southern Oil Company, a nationalized industry, for 33 years. He lives in a small, crumbling house in the poverty-stricken Jhoumouria district of Basra.

Father of six and a survivor of Saddam’s jails and torture chambers (he was imprisoned three times under the Saddam regime), Hassan frequently cites the strike by oil workers in the South against the Basra Oil Company administration in the 1950s as an example of the power oil workers once had in Iraq, before the Baath regime crushed workers organizations. In 1987 trade unions were dissolved and all workers were transformed into “civil servants.” State-run trade unions were set up and acted as instruments of surveillance and repression.

Older generations may still remember the meaning of the word “trade union” and remember functioning in a genuine workers’ organization. However, younger workers are still unclear as to what a trade union is capable of and what they themselves are capable of when they organize together for their own interests.

One of Hassan’s key requests when visiting the UK was for training for trade union activists, in organizational, coordination, and network-building skills.

The General Union of Oil Employees in Basra, or Basra Oil Union, as it is also called, is a federation of oil unions representing 23,000 members in ten energy related trade union councils, active in the nine separate Iraqi companies which make up the oil sector in Basra, Amara, and Nassiryah.

The Southern Oil Company is the biggest oil company in Iraq, and the undiscovered oil reserves, which are thought to surpass those of Saudi Arabia, are to be found primarily in the South. The other companies in this sector, besides the Southern Oil Company, are the Southern Gas Company, Southern Refinery Company, Iraqi Excavation Company, the Oil Carrier Company, the Gas Packing Company, the Oil Production Company, the Oil Projects Company, and the Oil Pipe Lines Company.

The position of the Basra Oil Union is that it is independent, free from any political party influence or control. It is a union which doesn’t belong to any of the Iraqi union federations, although it enjoys relationships of cooperation and good communication at a local level with all of them—the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), and also the General Federation of Iraq Unions (led by Jabbar Tarish). Hassan also made a link with Kurdish trade union representatives while in London.

Despite activists within the union being members of different political parties, these political and ideological differences are left outside of union-building work, which, it was decided by consensus, should always and only serve workers’ interests and not those of the government or any particular party. The leadership of the union has been democratically elected by workers themselves. The union’s position is that it is against privatization and against the occupation—military and economic—of Iraq. The union sees itself as bearing the responsibility of defending Iraq’s national wealth for the benefit of all Iraqis. Those who work day in day out to create the wealth of Iraq are those who were killed under the regime for trying to organize against it and suffered some of the most draconian surveillance and repression as a result of their critical and vital position within the economy.

Iraqi oil workers are highly conscious of this critical position and the power they wield as a collective force. The union believes that the wealth of Iraq should be used to benefit all Iraqis—from North to South—to raise people out of poverty and to reconstruct the country both economically and socially. The union knows that the sights of the American “free market” fundamentalist crusade are trained firmly on Iraq’s oil industry and have been since the 1970s [and earlier].

One of the first acts of defiance against the occupation and the imposition of unlivable wages by the Bremer Administration was a three-day oil strike that started on August 10. 2003. It was also important to oil workers and the union leadership to keep the knowledge of the workings of the oil industry in the hands of Iraqi workers. From the very beginning, workers threw out the employees of the U.S. corporation Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) from their workplaces, as they knew that they had been sent by the Pentagon and were a constituent part of the occupation. Barring KBR from their workplaces was one way of keeping that information safe from cooptation and exploitation and workers in control of workplaces.

Oil workers won an important struggle for higher wages in January 2004 after strike action and repeated pressure on the occupation authorities. Proconsul Paul Bremer had introduced Order 30 “On Salaries and Employment Conditions” in September 2003; oil workers in the Iraqi South managed to get the last two levels of the 11-level wage table eliminated, making the lowest minimum wage 102,000 Iraqi dinars, or ID (which with risk and location payments rose to 150,000 ID), up from just 69,000 ID. Order 30 was just one of 100 such Orders, [1] de-facto laws which govern everything from traffic regulations to foreign investment and the status of occupation soldiers.

Legal experts consider the Orders illegal, because the Hague and Geneva Conventions, to which both the British and U.S. governments are signatories, prohibit occupying powers from overhauling a country’s legal system, restructuring its economy, and selling off state assets and properties. The Orders were passed under Bremer’s Civil Administration Law under the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The CPA was formally disbanded in June 2004; yet its administrative law persists, despite mass opposition to it and a fatwah, or religious decree, against it from the Ayatollah Sistani. Iraqis voting in the January 2005 elections repeatedly cited the repeal of Bremer’s laws as one of the main reasons for trying to vote in a government that can write new laws and a constitution to serve the needs of the Iraqi people. Bremer’s laws are widely regarded as an extension of U.S. interests, and the vehicle that will usher in privatization of the Iraqi economy, ensure the impunity of foreign soldiers and mercenaries from prosecution, continue to ban trade unions, and criminalize public demonstrations and free speech.

The General Union of Oil Employees in Basra is still an “illegal” union, as it has not been officially recognized by the government. “We take our legitimacy from the workers and not from the government,” states Hassan.

Overcoming isolation is one of the key problems facing all new Iraqi civil society organizations. Connection to the Internet and access to independent media and newspapers with uncensored news is restricted by the government and by prohibitively expensive net cafes and scarce web connections. On average, an hour on the Internet costs 2,000 Iraqi dinars (about $1.50). This is a day’s wages for some workers and in real terms can buy 40 pieces of bread—enough to feed the children of a family of five for a whole week.

The General Union of Oil Employees in Basra needs massive support. The struggle of Iraqi oil workers against the privatization of their industry and national resources is a struggle which serves all those fighting to end the war and ongoing occupation of Iraq, all those locked in struggle against corporate giants, occupying armies, neocolonial regimes and governments, and capitalism itself, the driving system behind this war. If we can stand in solidarity with Iraqi oil workers, this system could be starved of the refueling it is depending on in Iraq.

Hassan’s Tour

After an initial welcome dinner on Edgware Road and then a Sunday spent at the British Museum (looking at Mesopotamian artifacts), work began in earnest with making links with British civil society organizations.

Trade Union links


Hassan had a successful lunchtime meeting with Geoff Martin, Battersea and Wandsworth TUC, Jon Rogers, United Left Candidate, UNISON, and Chris Baugh, Deputy General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union. Hassan appealed for trade union training more than any financial support, citing the damage done to Iraqi working class capacity to organize as a result of the former regime. All responded with interest and good will and pledged to stay in touch and work together to support Hassan’s union.

The UNT (National Workers Union—Venezuela)

Hassan also met with Ricardo Galindez, a representative from the UNT Bolivarian oil workers union in Venezuela.[2] Ricardo, like Hassan, is no stranger to repression, having himself been beaten and also shot in the chest in attacks thought to be the work of bosses’ thugs in the state of Lara. Both Hassan and Ricardo had common ground and committed themselves to each writing an open letter of solidarity and recognition and resistance to the neo-liberal agenda, union to union.

Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU)

On Wednesday, February 9, Hassan had a very fruitful meeting with Jim Mowatt, Chief Negotiator for TGWU affiliated oil workers. The TGWU represents oil workers at all levels of the industry working for the following companies: Shell, BP [British Petroleum], TotalFinaElf, and Exxon Mobil. The TGWU has established solidarity links with oil workers in trade unions in the U.S., which Jim described as “militant and very anti-Bush and anti-BP.” The TGWU has also built a global network for oil workers working for Exxon. Mowatt offered support and training for oil sector trade unionists in Basra and also floated the idea of solidarity action by workers in the British oil sector with Iraqi oil workers in event of strikes in Basra.

Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT)

Hassan met with RMT General Secretary Bob Crow on Friday, February 11, and spoke about the situation his union was facing and also the dire conditions facing railway workers in Iraq’s South. The Basra Oil Union has good contact with railway workers in that region.

U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW)

This trade union task force and labor rights network involving over three million workers in the U.S. has long been a supporter of the Southern Oil Company Union. [3] Labor journalist David Bacon,[4] who was part of a USLAW delegation to Baghdad in October 2003, interviewed Hassan in London and also gave him a letter of solidarity from the Paper, Allied-Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE).

International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Unions (ICEM)

Hassan met with Jim Catterson, Director of Organization, Materials Industry Sector Officer of ICEM, which represents 20 million energy industry workers in 399 unions in 108 countries. Hassan invited Jim to come to Basra and see for himself the strength of the Basra oil union, meet with activists and officials, and observe the operations of the union on a day-to-day basis, as well as stay in worker activists’ homes. Security could be provided by the union for a delegation of two to five, from the border of Kuwait to Basra and back. Jim said he would look into it and accepted the invitation in principle, pending security issues being cleared. Training was also discussed, with possible sessions to be held in Jordan and the training of trainers as a concept was explored.

Hadi Salih Memorial Evening

Hassan attended the memorial evening for Hadi Salih, the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions international secretary, which was held at the TUC’s headquarters in London. Hassan had met Hadi three times in the course of his work; the Southern Oil Company union had also hung a traditional mourning banner outside their office, in honor of Hadi Salih and in condemnation of his brutal murder.

Iraq Trade Union Solidarity Conference

Held on Monday, February 14, this saw eight trade unionists from four federations active in Iraq—the teachers’ association and journalists union of Iraq, the Kurdistan Workers Syndicate, and the autonomous Basra oil union—participate in workshops with British trade union activists. [5] Representatives from the ICEM, the International Labour Organisation, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, and the International Transport Workers Federation also attended. All the major UK trade unions were represented. The idea of an unofficial grassroots network for solidarity with Iraq unions was proposed and undertaken by a group of trade union activists to run in tandem with the TUC’s Iraq Appeal [6] and its activities. Hassan also had a private meeting with Owen Tudor, head of the TUC European Union and International Relations Department, in which Owen stressed the TUC’s commitment to supporting Iraqi trade unions and also urged the formation of a working relationship with ICEM.

National Union of Journalists (NUJ)

Here we met with General Secretary Jeremy Dear. Hassan spoke of the need for a General Union of Oil Employees’ newsletter in order to spread news unavailable in the mainstream about Iraq’s debt, plans for privatization, and Structural Adjustment Programs [usually austerity programs involving cutbacks in government-funded social programs and demanded by the International Monetary Fund for the sake of debt repayment to banks and governments of the advanced capitalist countries]. Equipment identified to achieve the production of such a newsletter was: a computer, scanner, digital camera, and printer. Media training was discussed and deemed necessary. Jeremy Dear said he would get in touch with contacts within the Arab Federation of Journalists who might be able to help with media training. He also pledged to send an appeal to all NUJ branches to try and raise money for the union to establish the newsletter. If published, it would regularly be sent back to the UK too and, if possible, translated so that all supporters of the Basra oil union would have an insight into workers’ local concerns, struggles, gains, and losses.

Scottish Trade Unions Congress (STUC)

Hassan met with Bill Speirs, General Secretary of the STUC, and spoke about his union’s achievements and reiterated the importance of trade union training. Bill was very receptive and gave Hassan a gift of STUC CD compilations, print-out photos of an STUC delegation to Palestine, and a bag of Taybeh Palestinian beers. Hassan also spoke to trade union representatives at the regular 12–15 participant Economy and Employment Committee meeting.

Offshore International Liaison Committee

Hassan met with the leadership of this non-TUC independent oil workers committee based in Aberdeen. The OILC was founded by a group of rank and file workers after the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988. Workers organized sit-in protests and wildcat strikes between 1988 and 1991 over health and safety conditions with the aim of causing as much disruption as possible until their demands were met. Oil giant Shell had to go to court to stop them from organizing.

The OILC is strongly opposed to signing partnership agreements with employers and has remained independent of such agreements, which it sees as undermining workers’ rights. Ronnie McDonald, past-General Secretary of the OILC said, “We see no future in partnerships of convenience because they always depend on one side surrendering power.” Despite the fact that most of Iraq’s oil industry is on-shore, Hassan was impressed and felt an affinity with the militancy and sacrifices of the OILC. The OILC activists were very keen to get involved with training Basra oil union cadres and also said they would publicize the Iraqi workers’ struggles through the OILC website. [7]

TGWU and Amicus Aberdeen Oil Sector

John Taylor, Regional Industrial Organizer, TGWU, and Graham Tran, Regional Officer, Amicus, gave Hassan a warm welcome and presentation about their work in the Inter-Union Offshore Committee, which represents six trade unions working for oil sector workers’ interests. The majority of the union members work in the drilling and contracting sector. Wages are markedly high in the UK oil industry, with a control room operator earning 55,000 pounds a year—that is, over ten times more than the average wage of an Iraqi control room operator. Both John and Graham pledged to keep in contact with Hassan, advising him to form links with the International Transport Worker Federation and ICEM. They also said they would send information about UK oil worker wages.

UK Civil Society Organizations

Jubilee Iraq

Hassan met with Justin Alexander, a founder and key activist with Jubilee Iraq, an organization working for the abolition of Iraq’s 120- billion-dollar debt. Justin has been researching how Iraq’s debt is being used to crowbar open Iraq’s economy to “free trade” and the “free market” by imposing IMF-style Structural Adjustment Programs demanding the privatization of public services and utilities and the cancellation of Iraq’s food ration and petrol subsidies. Hassan was deeply impressed by this research and said that the information he was hearing was unavailable in Iraq and that ordinary Iraqis had no idea that their economy was being restructured. He asked for more information and to be kept alerted to any new developments. He also stated he’d be passing on all information to workers in his union and to friends and allies in other civil society organizations in Iraq. [8]

Platform [9]

Platform is an organization which has been researching the effects, structures, and agenda of oil companies with a view to eventually eliminating global dependence on a carbon fuel economy. Social justice and environmental justice are the goals of the 22-year-old organization.

Platform works with trade unionists and oil refugees and has consulted and cooperated with community groups and workers opposed to oil expansion and exploitation in Russia, Turkey, Nigeria, the UK North Sea, and Chechnya. Platform researchers read the oil industry press and attend corporate conferences in an effort to understand the culture and operations of the oil industry and those who inhabit and perpetuate it and could have the means to change it.

Hassan was briefed on the three stages of privatization planned for Iraq’s oil industry [10] and the meaning of the controversial production-sharing agreements and the contracts which had already been awarded to Shell, UKOIL, and BP. Platform and Hassan pledged to stay in touch and share information on privatization plans. This information would be distributed among workers through a regular union newsletter.

War Against Want (WAW)

An organization over half a century old, with its roots in the British trade union movement, and one of four organizations which organized the Naomi Klein event at Friends House in November [11] (the others were Iraq Occupation Focus, Voices in the Wilderness, and Jubilee Iraq). The November event raised approximately $2,500 for the Southern Oil Company Union and the same amount for the Study Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Falluja. War on Want specializes in encouraging and supporting grassroots movements and civil society organizations in their struggles for democracy and against privatization. WAW pledged to help Hassan and his union in finding the contacts and content for a conference the union is planning to have in Basra on the issue of privatization.

London School of Economics

Anthropology lecturer and fluent Arabic speaker Martha Mundy organized a meeting with antiwar staff, which was fruitful. One of the participants agreed to explore contacts with an Italian/EU NGO, which may be able to offer training for Hassan’s union.


Hassan was interviewed by:

Middle East Panorama on Resonance FM

Red Pepper Magazine

The Morning Star

Informal interview with Johnathan Steele at the Guardian

The Socialist Party’s paper

Yvonne Ridley on her current affairs and politics show on The Islam Channel

The Big Issue Scotland

He was also featured in a Guardian article by Simon Jeffrey[12] and had his own article on the Guardian comment page.

Public Meetings

Hassan’s hosting group, Iraq Occupation Focus, held a public meeting Tuesday, February 8, at the University of London Student Union. The transcript can be read here.

Hassan also attended and spoke at the annual conference of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC), on Saturday, February 12, at Friends Meeting House, London. He received a standing ovation and was virtually mobbed by jubilant Iraqi activists and delegates afterwards. Excerpts from his speech are here.

Hassan also spoke at an STWC rally to build the worldwide March 19 demonstrations. It was held at the Friends Meeting House on Monday, February 14. Alongside him on the platform were Tony Benn, John Rees, and George Galloway. Hassan again received a standing ovation for his speech, which underlined the need for immediate withdrawal of foreign occupation troops from Iraq. He thanked the UK antiwar movement for standing by the Iraqi people and said he hoped to see everybody in Basra one day. He also spoke against “the criminal” Saddam Hussein and emphasized the suffering Iraqi people had to endure under the tyranny of Baath party rule. He also reiterated his union’s pledge to defend Iraq’s oil wealth from privatization and vowed to resist the ongoing economic occupation of Iraq.

Scottish Socialist Party

Up in Glasgow, Hassan was warmly received at a meeting organized by the Scottish Socialist Party at Partick Borough Halls, Partick, on Wednesday, February 16. He spoke alongside Rose Gentle, mother of Scottish soldier Gordon Gentle, killed in Basra last year, and Frances Curran, MSP. Frances Curran pledged to continue to support the Basra Oil Union and to make solidarity with the union a central feature of the SSP’s antiwar campaigning. She also said she would raise Hassan’s visit in Parliament and express there the welcome and thanks the SSP gave to Hassan when he came to Scotland.

Politicians and MPs

Hassan spoke to a packed House of Commons meeting of the Labour Party Socialist Campaign Group. MPs Jeremy Corbyn, John Macdonnell, Alan Simpson, and Harry Barnes were among the attendees. When asked about whether civil war would ensue if troops left Iraq, Hassan replied that this was an Iraqi issue and Iraqi people would sort out their own problems. He said that even if there was civil war for twenty years after the troop withdrawal, the troops still had to leave immediately.

Asked whether the situation was better now in Iraq compared to how it was before, Hassan said that in terms of people being able to speak, it was easier, and there were more freedoms in this area. He said he would never have been allowed out of the country to come to the UK under the Saddam Hussein regime. However, he said that in terms of economic conditions, poverty, and public services such as health, water, electricity, and fuel provision, the situation was terrible and as bad as it was before the invasion.

The Socialist Campaign Group invited Hassan back to the UK for their summer meeting and pledged to work in solidarity with the Basra Oil Union and raise relevant issues concerning Iraqi workers’ rights in Parliament.

Department for International Development (DFID)

Owen Tudor, Head of TUC European Union and International Relations Department arranged for Hassan to visit the Iraq National Program at the Middle East and North Africa subsection of DFID. Hassan was asked by an economist working for DFID what his views were on DFID’s Iraq Interim Country Assistance Plan, [13] which is based on IMF Structural Adjustment austerity measures, such as elimination of the food ration system and its replacement with a cash subsidy and also the removal of petrol subsidies. Hassan’s opinion on this plan was that it would be a “disaster” for the Iraqi people, and would increase poverty and suffering in the country. He also said it represented a form of neocolonialism. The economist we spoke to insisted that after “35 years of chronic under-investment,” Iraq needed a structural adjustment program, especially because of the debt the Iraqi government had incurred.

Despite Hassan’s stressing that this debt did not belong to the Iraqi people but to the regime of Saddam Hussein and had not been used to serve Iraqi society but had been used on military adventurism, the economist we spoke to continued to stress that Iraq had to open up its borders to “free trade” and the “free market,” which would bring new skills to Iraqi workers too.

There was no reconciliation of the two positions. One position was that of a man half Hassan’s age in a department that had first supported Saddam’s fascist-style regime, then the genocidal sanctions, an illegal war, and now a brutal occupation. The other was the position of a working class Iraqi from Basra and head of a union which is in control of the resource this war and occupation are aiming at.


All in all, Hassan had a very successful trip and has succeeded in raising the profile of the General Union of Oil Employees in Basra and its achievements.

Some of the key tasks at hand for the future are as follows:

(1) Union-to-Union Solidarity Responses:

Send recognition letter to UNT (Venezuela) and response to Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE) in the USA.

(2) A Basra oil union website

Iraqi Democrats Against the Occupation said they would help establish a portal for the union  

(3) Internal communications, education, and network-building. A regular Basra oil union newsletter. Follow-up with the National Union of Journalists and also Platform, Jubilee Iraq, and War Against Want. Arrangements to be made to translate into English.

(4) International Solidarity and privatization struggle

A written appeal from the Basra oil union to trade unions and civil society organization fighting privatization in Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, South Africa, Korea, Poland, and beyond with the view to building tactics and strategy for the Basra oil union’s own struggle ahead and also for a conference this summer—to liaise with War on Want, Iraq Occupation Focus, Jubilee Iraq and Platform.

 Also requested was a pamphlet or document which builds on the information found in USLAW’s “The Corporate Invasion of Iraq” and deals with British companies, in particular oil companies winning contracts in Iraq at present and their ties to the British government: liaise with

Corporate Watch, Platform, War on Want, OILC. and others, to produce this.

(5) Trade Union capacity and organization building: Trade Union activist training

Liaise with trade union activists met so far both in Scotland and England and also within ICEM, with a view to either engaging in training programs in Jordan or arranging for a delegation to come to Basra and visit union offices, worksites, and facilities and conduct training and possible skills-sharing there.

(6) Antiwar Movement awareness-raising and responses to repression

Building on the success of the Basra oil union’s position and endorsement by the Stop the War Coalition, relations will be sustained and information widely disseminated with a view to developing more solidarity and engagement with the union’s fight against privatization.

In the event of repression against trade union activists, solidarity mobilizations, demonstrations, and direct action must be considered.

(7) Making links with UK-based and international human rights groups and lawyers—in anticipation of violent repression against workers organizing against the fundamental agenda of the war and occupation,

Human rights lawyers and organizations with Iraq departments, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as more local groups with an internationalist perspective such as Campaign Against Criminalising Communities, should be kept informed of any violations taking place.

Extra Special Thank-yous for translation and support:

Munir Chalabi, Iraq Occupation Focus

Nadeem Mahjoub, Middle East Panorama, Resonance FM

Martha Mundy, Anthropology Lecturer and antiwar activist, LSE

Sami Ramadani, Teacher and Activist

Hani Lazem, Iraqi Democrats Against the Occupation

Sabah Jawad, Iraqi Democrats Against the Occupation

Professor Kamal Majid

Fatima Helouu

Wael Shawish (Campaign for Palestinian Rights in Scotland)

Danny Prior, for driving and photo and film processing

Sian Glaessner, Voices in the Wilderness, for camera and technical


And Mohammad Hussein Ramadan (Ghareeb), friend and comrade without whom none of this would have been possible. RIP

[1] Full list:














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