Iranian workers resist as sanctions grip

The coming to power of President Hassan Rouhani in the Iranian election of June 2013 was sold, both nationally and internationally, as a turning point in the politics of Iran. Rouhani was heralded as a liberal, someone with whom the West could do business, someone who would negotiate a satisfactory deal on the disputed nuclear projects undertaken by the theocratic regime, and hence an end to international sanctions and liberalize social practices in Iran. Good for the people, good for the economy, was how the picture was painted.

Eighteen months into Rouhani’s tenure the promises made at the time of his election are now coming back to haunt him. There is no indication in social practices in Iran that the tide has turned.  Trade unionists continue to be arbitrarily arrested.  Women continue to be persecuted for dressing and behaving in ways deemed to be “un-Islamic.” Young people engaging in activities on social media networks face arrest and prosecution.

Economically the picture is no better.  Sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, aimed at exacting concessions from the regime regarding its domestic nuclear energy program, continue to have a disproportionate  impact upon the economy. The rapid decline of the price of crude oil over the past year, a commodity upon which the economy of Iran is heavily reliant, has squeezed the revenues coming in to the Iranian treasury even further, putting greater pressure on the country’s beleaguered workforce.

As a result, in recent months, workers in Iran have increasingly engaged in a wave of strikes which have challenged President Rouhani and his administration. Strikes have a variety of origins but are often due to the failure to pay back-payments, at the Haft-Tappe sugarcane factory and complex, Bandar Imam Petrochemicals, Gilana tile factory and Assaluyeh natural gas company, for example.  Other major issues of concern to workers include mass scale layoffs, worsening work conditions and attempts to intimidate labor activists and workers’ representatives. The reality is that while Rouhani has promised to increase domestic production in Iran, strikes across the country demonstrate the limits of his promises.

The miners’ strike at Bafgh in central Iran, which took place earlier in 2014, had echoes of the mines, jobs and communities slogan of the 1984/85 miners’ strike in the UK.

At Bafgh, 5,000 workers have gone on strike twice. Several workers have been arrested, and the presence of the police indicates that these strikes have become a serious issue, only resolved with the government’s retreat. Yet, these strikes also reveal workers’ fears over privatization.

The miners initiated the strike on May 17 in opposition to the sale of the mine’s shares to the private sector. This transfer followed the decision of Iran’s minister of industry, mines and trade, Mohammadreza Nematzadeh, to transfer control of the mines to the private sector. Since 2000, more than 70% of this mine’s shares had been sold to private investors. The announcement in May concerned the remaining 28% of shares. The strike initially lasted until June 24, ending after issuing the government a two-month ultimatum to reconsider its position.

However, toward the end of August, just before the end of the ultimatum period, arrest warrants were issued for 18 workers, with some being taken into custody.  On August 19, the miners staged a second strike to protest the arrest of two of their colleagues, Ali Sabri and Amirhossein Kargaran.

On August 31, a political-intelligence mission representing the government entered Bafgh to negotiate with the workers. Three days later, after the release of the arrested workers and the cancellation of the private-sector transfer, the strike ended. Significantly, the strike had the full backing of the people and local government officials, including the city council and even the Friday imam. This broad base of community support was critical for its success.

The opposition to the ongoing privatization of the mine was based upon the experience of Iranian workers in other sectors where asset stripping, closure and job losses have been the order of the day.

More recently 150 workers took action at the Arak Pars Wagon factory following the dismissal of the workers’ representative by the management board.  In addition, 750 more workers went into the factory but refused to start work in protest against the management’s action. Last week, the Union of Metalworkers and Mechanics of Iran (UMMI) declared its full support for and solidarity with workers engaged in this industrial action and called for the reinstatement of their workers’ representative.

It has been reported that, after a week of action, workers were successful and their council representative’s dismissal was overturned on Sunday December 28. This was in spite of threats from the Revolutionary Guards in Iran and the intervention of state forces to try and break the action.

As a result of these and other actions, the government is stuck completely. The continuing sanctions are crippling the economy. The neoliberal economic policies of the regime are worsening the situation. The pressure on workers has become increasingly worse.  

Jamshid Ahmadi, assistant general secretary of the UK-based Committee in Defense of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR), met in November with the leadership of the IndustriALL global union in Geneva to discuss the worsening situation of the workers in all industrial sectors. He reported that “The catastrophic economic situation in Iran and the policies of the regime have taken away the protection of labour law from workers … Millions of Iranian workers have grievances against their employers for unpaid work, for being laid off and for other violations of their basic rights.” Ahmadi further explained: “In Iran, arrests and detentions take place on a regular basis; workers are frequently arrested for supporting the right to organize workers and for building independent trade union structures. Torture is routinely used to extract confessions, and political prisoners are systematically denied medical care.”

CODIR continues to mobilize public opinion and, in particular, trade unions internationally to stand in solidarity with the Iranian workers as they struggle for human and democratic change in Iran and for the Iranian regime to abide by the internationally accepted norms and ILO conventions.

Photo: Iranian workers. Siah Bishe CC 2.0  


Jane Green
Jane Green

Jane Green is the national campaign officer of the UK-based CODIR, Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People's Rights.