|Protesters outside the South Oil Company headquarters in Basra. (ALI ABU IRAQ/Iraq Oil Report)|
Up to 700 employees are estimated to have thronged at the gates of the state-run South Oil Company (SOC) headquarters in the latest round of demonstrations. Staff there are rallying for improved pay and contractual conditions, and threatening to stop cooperating with foreign oil companies if their demands are not met.
"There is a real push to resolve the problems of the associates at SOC," said Susan al-Saad, a member of the Parliament Oil and Energy Committee.
Among their several complaints, the protesters have been demanding a share of SOC's profits. Saad said that a committee composed of company accountants and the Chairman of the Board of Supreme Audit (BSA) should calculate the dues to workers.
"Incentives, allowances and bonuses, which have drawn the ire of SOC associates, need to be approved by the Cabinet and will be resolved as soon as approved," Saad said.
It is unclear whether Saad's statement will be enough to quell further protests. The latest round of demonstrations have been marked by rising tensions with security staff guarding the SOC's headquarters. Some workers are threatening to stop work associated with the foreign oil companies helping to develop Basra fields.
Protests began in early February, as hundreds of local tribesmen gathered near the West Qurna 1 oil field, about 110 kilometers north of Basra city. They demanded jobs working at the project that had displaced many from their farms, as well as better compensation for lost land.
Days later, oil workers began marching outside SOC headquarters. They have issued several demands, which they say have gone unheeded by SOC executives for several months: access to state housing entitlements; better healthcare for workers who claim to be suffering from exposure to uranium-dense fields; and the full-time hiring of employees who have long been working on temporary contracts, which has precluded them from better pay and pension entitlements.
The Oil Ministry has denied the rumors spreading among oil workers that the government would punish protesters, either by counting them as absent on protest days or by charging them with crimes under sweeping anti-terrorism legislation. Local politicians have expressed their backing for the workers.
"We will not punish any protesters and all their demands will be fulfilled," said Basra provincial council head Sabah al-Bezzouni.
While SOC employees have vowed to keep up their protests, some are doubtful their demands will be met.
"We have met with officials in earlier times and promised us to solve our problems, but nothing happened," said one union staff member.
Some members doubt the efficacy of the unions themselves. In recent years, workers have often protested with a similar list of demands, but to little effect; the Oil Ministry has occasionally responded by identifying protest leaders and relocating them to positions in different parts of the country.
According to protester Hamad Zahir, the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, headed by Hassan Juma, is "very weak, with limited staff, because of their extreme ideas."
Rather than present their demands through a union representative, three protestors accompanied by Bezzouni will negotiate demands with South Oil Company, said Zahir.
If negotiations fail, most workers expect to take to the streets again.
"We say to all officials that in case of failure to respond to our legitimate demands, then we're all going to gather at the headquarters of the company to renew our stand again," Hamad Abboud, a protest leader, said at the latest rally. "If we are met again with the same cynicism and procrastination, then we shall take our protests to oil sites."
The SOC workers' political backing comes from a variety of political blocs.
Mazin al-Mazni, a representative of the Sadrist movement in Basra, said the workers' demands are legitimate and that decision-makers should work on implementing them. He claims that a number of the SOC's engineers are experiencing "some pressure exerted on them by foreign companies and their ongoing interventions in issues outside their powers."