Iraqi laborers facing harsh conditions in holy city of Najaf

Due to the economic crisis, thousands of workers, including children from southern provinces, come to Najaf to work under difficult circumstances to support their families.

al-monitor Iraqi workers load bricks on a donkey-drawn cart in a brick factory in Najaf, Feb. 9, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani.

Topics covered

tourism, najaf, labor market, housing, employment, children

июл 19, 2016

Mohammad Karim Khudair, 13, quickly pushes his luggage trolley through the streets of Najaf. The small three-wheel trolley is loaded with the luggage of an Iranian tourist who came to the city to visit the Shrine of Imam Ali. Next to the bags, an elderly woman managed to squeeze herself onto the trolley.

Just like Khudair, many workers push their heavily loaded trolleys and race each other to the X-ray scanner at the checkpoint at the entrance of al-Sadeq Street in the old city of Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) southwest of Baghdad.

These trolleys, pushed by men and children such as Khudair, fill the streets of the old city where vehicles are denied entry. This security setup forces visitors to rent trolleys to get their luggage delivered to their hotels or serve as a means of transportation for the elderly who cannot walk.

Khudair said that he came from the city of Samawah in al-Khoder region — which is administratively part of the Muthanna province, 145 kilometers south of Najaf — and that his father had sent him to Najaf to work, since he is the breadwinner in a family consisting of his parents, five younger siblings and himself.

Taleb Hamid, 40, said he came from al-Khoder region, too. He told Al-Monitor that he was forced to move to Najaf to work in order to support his large family following the drought that hit the agricultural lands in al-Khoder and in light of local agriculture's inability to compete with imported products.

Mortada Abed, 17, said he came to Najaf from the city of al-Diwaniyah in Qadisiyah province (33 kilometers east of Najaf) to work because there are no jobs in his hometown.

All the workers Al-Monitor spoke with said that many youths and men had left their cities to look for work in Najaf.

It is hard to verify the numbers because the local administration and the provincial council in Najaf do not possess any data on workers who came from outside the city.

Officials in both the local and provincial councils told Al-Monitor, “We cannot count the number of those who enter the province. There is no way to find out whether these displaced people have left the city or are still working here, as millions visit the city each year.”

These workers live and work under challenging circumstances, and some sleep on their own trolleys. After midnight in the old city, between al-Midan Square and the intersection between the old bus station and Abu Khamsin mall, a long line of trolleys are parked in front of the big hotels.

The men and children who try to make a living by providing services with trolleys sleep out in the open; they wake up at dawn to start their workday and return late at night. In the alleys of the old city, workers from out of town often sleep on the doorsteps of shops that are closed at night.

Mohammad Hussein Abu Saiba, a doctoral student in political science and the chairman of the Development Association for Political Sciences in Najaf, told Al-Monitor, “These workers stay in large caravansaries near al-Hatef Street in Khan al-Mokhdar area, where the trolleys are parked at night and each worker sleeps on his own trolley. On holidays these workers sleep in the large tents that are set up to receive visitors, as well as in permanent tents set up by some political parties in front of their headquarters. These parties allow the workers to sleep there in order to protect the children among the workers.”

Earlier this year, Najaf’s 3rd Emergency Regiment had required these workers to paint their trolleys silver and to wear matching outfits in order to allow them easy access to the caravansaries.

Abu Saiba was unable also to provide accurate figures and statistics on the numbers of these workers, but he thinks there are hundreds in Najaf.

Al-Monitor witnessed incidents where members from the emergency regiment, sometimes with reason and sometimes not, prevented many of these workers from entering the old city. Some workers were beaten by members of the security forces. A first lieutenant in one of the security units in the old city told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Some of them are robbing the visitors.”

On the causes of the problem, the Ministry of Planning conducted a study in 2010 monitoring the levels of poverty in Iraq in terms of basic needs, job opportunities and good health. The study showed that Muthanna and Qadisiyah provinces came in second and registered 44.3% in terms of the high level of poverty, followed by the province of Dhi Qar. A number of workers who Al-Monitor met in Najaf came from these provinces. Since this study, no other reports on the topic have been published by the ministry. However, the situation has gotten worse in recent years due to the economic crisis and ongoing war with the Islamic State.

A comprehensive study by Sulafa Tariq al-Shaalan published in her book “Legal studies on Iraqi legislation” says several reasons led to this state of poverty and to the decline of agricultural production, which has been deteriorating since 2003 in these provinces.

The government lifted agriculture subsidies, and the Coalition Provisional Authority issued decisions restricting Iraqi agricultural production and significantly reducing economic agricultural returns, causing a sharp decline in employment. This triggered workers from outside the holy cities to come to Najaf, for instance, in search of jobs, no matter how arduous, to provide for their families.

The thefts reported by some security force members as well as the risks that these working children may face reveal a deeper problem. Will these children and workers be dragged into committing offenses and misdemeanors in light of not having their families around and not having having proper care from the state?

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