Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Pensioners Left Behind in Wage Boom

Patience runs thin as older people see their benefits shrinking as salaries rise.
By Adnan Karim

In a sign of rising expectations in post-war Iraq, pensioners are protesting against a government decision they say leaves them behind as the working population finally begin catching up with the cost of living.


A crowd of elderly men and women recently gathered outside the Baghdad headquarters of Iraq's Governing Council, GC, and pressed lists of their demands against the sealed windows of cars delivering council members to work.


The demonstration was one of a series organised by pensioners' groups in the capital in protest against an earlier decision by the finance ministry to authorise monthly payments of 30,000 to 41,500 dinars – 20-28 US dollars – to retired public servants, depending on their seniority.


Pensioners said the increased payments are still too little to live on, despite being much larger in nominal terms than the 5,000-8,000 dinars a month paid in Saddam's day, and more substantial than the two quarterly payments of 60 dollars that were given out by the Coalition Provisional Authority, CPA.


"I demand that the finance minister and the director general of the pension office themselves be retired so that they can enjoy this pension," said Mohammed Abed Jassem, a retired judge who said he worked 28 years on the bench.


The demonstrators said that during the boom years of the Eighties, pensions were worth 90 per cent of the salaries to which they were linked, and even in the harder times that followed the imposition of United Nations sanctions in the Nineties, they were still worth 50 per cent.


Today, however, they range from just 15 per cent to as little as six percent of the salary they are linked to.


Both wages and salaries have lost value over the years as the Iraqi dinar – once worth three dollars - depreciated to reach its present exchange rate of 1,500 to the dollar. By the time the war broke out last year, the real value of many public-sector salaries had fallen to as little as two dollars a month.


But wages of public servants were hiked after the fall of Saddam, and entry-level civil servants now earn a monthly salary of 100,000 dinars – about 70 dollars – while the most senior grades make as much as 700,000 dinars, not far off 500 dollars.


Now pensioners want their share of the improved earnings.


"I served from 1947 to 1983. I’ve had the photographs of six different Iraqi presidents on my wall. Now I am in terrible conditions," said Abdel Karim Ali, who could barely stand amid the jostling outside the council.


"Retract this decision, and do not bring us death within life," Ali said.


Nuri al-Halafy, the director general of Iraq’s pension office, admitted that pensioners receive a low level of benefit, but still, he said, "It's better than what they received under Saddam."


As he walked to his car surrounded by a crowd of pensioners, Halafy advised them to "be patient".


But that advice grates on the ears of a population that has been told – through more than 20 years of wars and sanctions – of the need to sacrifice the present for a better future.


"Be patient," muttered one member of the crowd, "those are the sort of words Saddam used."


Adnan Karim is a trainee journalist in Baghdad.