Promoting decent work in Iraq

Iraq has been a member of the ILO since 1932 and has ratified 68 ILO Conventions, including all eight fundamental Conventions. Despite various reforms and strategies designed to support the labour force following the 2003 Iraq War, the country still faces a host of labour market challenges which are linked to the country’s political, social, economic, and security situation.

Irag background

  • Poverty rates in Iraq hover at around 30 per cent and are significantly higher in rural areas. The displacement of millions of people – both internally displaced Iraqis and refugees from neighbouring Syria – have negatively impacted employment and inflated the informal sector.
  • Iraq has one of the lowest employment-to-total population ratios in the region, even among men, and the 2014 crisis has led to an estimated reduction in employment by 800,000.
  • Labour force participation is estimated at 49 per cent for federally-administered Iraq and 40 per cent for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Female labour force participation in Iraq is particularly low, estimated at 20 per cent.
  • Of an estimated working age population of 20 million in Iraq, at least 2.5 million are unemployed. The unemployment rate in KRI in particular increased from 6.5 per cent prior to the eruption of the conflict between Iraqi forces and Islamic militants in 2013, to 14 per cent in 2016, largely due to the influx of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.
  • In addition, almost a quarter of the working-age population is underutilised – either unemployed or underemployed. Iraqi women who do participate in the labour market are also more likely to be unemployed, under-employed or employed in part-time jobs.

The ILO in Iraq

The ILO re-launched its decent work agenda in Iraq as part of the reconstruction effort in 2004. The ILO and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs of Iraq (MOLSA) agreed on a technical assistance framework which focused on job creation through private sector development, broadening social security coverage, freedom of association, social dialogue, the designing and implementation of the National Employment Policy, actuarial studies, international labour standards, and reform of legislation.

In March 2020, the ILO opened its first Iraq country coordination office, in the capital Baghdad, in response to a request by MOLSA. The aim was to provide better support to the government, workers and employers of Iraq in promoting decent work and increasing employment opportunities.

The coordination office oversees the implementation of Iraq’s first Decent Work Country Programme (DWCP 2019-2023), and supports other UN agencies in development-focused work across Iraq.

First Decent Work Country Programme (2019-2023)

In December 2019, Iraq and the ILO launched the country’s first Decent Work Country Programme (DWCP). DWCPs are the ILO’s main vehicle to implement its decent work agenda and to deliver policy, institutional and development cooperation support to member states.

The DWCP in Iraq, which covers the period 2019-2023, was developed in close consultation with Iraq’s government and its worker and employer representatives, to ensure alignment with the national development frameworks of Iraq.

The DWCP in Iraq focuses on three areas of priority: ensuring that private sector development supports the creation of new jobs; extending and strengthening social protection and addressing child labour; and improving social dialogue in order to promote rights at work.

The ILO’s newly-established presence in Iraq ensures the implementation of the Programme in a coordinated manner on the ground, placing the ILO as a key partner of the government and bringing the ILO closer to its social partners.

Job creation and private sector development

The Iraq DWCP works to ensure that reconstruction and recovery efforts create opportunities for decent work, and develop enterprises and market-relevant skills. Relevant projects are working to increase the job creation potential of MSMEs in high-potential sectors and enhance their operating environment, and create better functioning labour market information systems that will enable evidence-based policy-making on employment.

Major achievements in this area to date include launching Iraq’s first nation-wide labour force survey in over a decade. Its findings will support developing evidence-based national employment policies.

In addition, the ILO spearheaded a rapid assessment on the impact of COVID-19 on Iraq’s labour market as well as an informality diagnostic study.

Achievements also include introducing the ILO’s flagship Employment Investment Approach in the country to support decent job creation.

The access of refugees and IDPs to skills and public employment services in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been improved through establishing five employment centres at the ministerial level, linked to sub offices in targeted camps.

Entrepreneurship for women, youth, IDPs and refugees has been improved through introducing the ILO’s Start and Improve Your Business, and its financial education and financial inclusion model.

Social protection and child labour

The ILO’s support to Iraq includes working to reduce vulnerabilities through extending and strengthening social protection to fill coverage and adequacy gaps, to ensure adequate protection to all those in need in a coordinated and cost-effective manner. Support in this area also includes developing an effective framework to ensure fewer vulnerable Iraqi children are exposed to child labour.

In this regard, a draft retirement and social security law is currently being revised with the support of the ILO. This is the first step in extending social security schemes to workers in the private sector, as part of efforts towards a comprehensive social protection reform. The ILO is also supporting Iraq in mainstreaming child labour concerns in laws and regulations, and implementing programmes by the government and by humanitarian and development partners to address child labour.

Labour governance and social dialogue

Through the Decent Work Country Programme, the ILO is supporting Iraq in strengthening labour market governance in order to promote the realisation of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work through improved social dialogue mechanisms.

Work in this regard includes improving the contribution of the social partners to tripartite institutions, based on the principles of social dialogue and freedom of association. Achievements to date include bringing trade unions together to coordinate efforts to achieve Decent Work in Iraq and to support the implementation of the DWCP.

ILO support to Iraq also includes improving the effectiveness of labour inspection and OSH services in preventing and detecting non-compliances with national and international labour standards. In this regard, a national policy on labour inspection and on Occupational Safety and Health is being developed with social partners.

Past joint achievements

Prior to launching the Iraq DWCP 2019-2023, the ILO worked with its tripartite partners in government as well as workers’ and employers’ organizations at the institutional level to formulate detailed policies and build institutional capacity to implement Decent Work programmes.

The ILO supported the process of drafting the Iraqi Labour Code which was adopted at the national level in 2015. Tripartite constituents in Iraq also received support from the ILO to implement the 2011 National Employment Policy.

At the regional level, the ILO worked closely with the Kurdistan Regional Government  to develop employment policy, review the labour code, and develop an unemployment benefit scheme tailored to the local context in the Autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq. The ILO also worked with disadvantaged youth in Iraqi Kurdistan to empower some 750 disadvantaged young women and men through accelerated vocational training, provision of a public employment scheme, entrepreneurship training, and soft loans for enterprise development. In order to introduce life and employability skills, the ILO assists the government of Iraq to develop a national youth strategy.

In response to relatively high youth unemployment in Iraq, the ILO worked with young people to encourage enterprise development in the country. As part of this effort, the ILO launched the Know About Business (KAB) entrepreneurship programme in the Autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which works with relevant line ministries as well as government and non-governmental organizations located in three governorates of the Kurdish region.


To help increase the effectiveness of Iraqi employers’ organizations, the ILO provided several rounds of technical consultations to employers’ organizations, including a capacity assessment of the Iraqi Federation Industries (IFI). The ILO also reviewed the IFI’s by-laws to enable the organization to develop governance systems and institutional structures. The ILO also worked to formalize informal labour by reviewing a draft of the small and medium enterprise law, originally drafted by the ILO as part of a private sector development programme.

The ILO worked with its tripartite partners in Iraq to develop a new unemployment insurance scheme and extend social security to specific categories of workers, including construction workers. The ILO also worked with the Kurdistan Regional Government to roll out the scheme in Iraqi Kurdistan for all private sector employees. Furthermore, by employing international labour standards and best practice, the ILO also worked with the Ministry of Labour and the Iraqi cabinet to facilitate the adoption of amended social security regulations for casual workers.