Organized labor challenges Irans theocratic state

With less than two months to go before the June presidential elections in Iran, labor unrest may yet be a factor determining the outcome.

The news that Iranian workers at the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Company were forced once again to resort to industrial action this month will come as little surprise to those familiar with the pattern of labor relations in Iran.

The company is based in the southwestern province of Khuzistan, near the city of Shush, and has been a major employer in the area for nearly 50 years. The present unrest began over a year ago when workers protested in May 2008 at the lack of pay for the previous two months. In a statement issued on May 1, 2008, the workers at the company outlined a list of demands to safeguard production and maximize job security. These included opposition to privatization; payment of wages on time; halting the sale of agricultural land to private companies; and giving full contracts to temporary workers.

Tension has been mounting in the industry due to the increased level of sugar imports allowed by the Iranian government over a two-year period. Normal import levels of sugar for Iran are around 700,000 tons to top up domestic production of 1.9 million tons. However, over an 18-month period, 3 million tons of sugar have been imported, 1 million tons of which were imported by the government’s own trading organization which has responsibility for market regulation.

In addition, the government decision to cut back raw sugar export tariffs from 130 percent to nil has further fuelled the import bonanza and crushed domestic production. Most sugar refining factories have their whole annual yield stocked. Farmers have had to cut cultivation of sugar beets and cane by 30 percent, while an estimated 200,000 workers across the sector have not been paid for months.

With the presidential election looming it is not difficult to see how the question of industrial unrest and the associated collapse in living standards may yet be a vital factor in the campaign.

Following a two-week-long strike in October 2008, the workers at Haft Tapeh formed an independent trade union and were immediately successful in securing back pay for workers. The present dispute has arisen due to a combination of factors. Lack of pay for the last two months has once again forced workers to take action. Also, on March 8, 2009, the Tapeh workers’ trade union president, Ali Nejati, was arrested along with seven members of the union’s executive. While the company has said that it will consider the question of back pay and the union’s other demands, Nejati and other union members remain imprisoned.

Latest reports suggest that Nejati has been detained by the Intelligence Ministry, in the city of Ahwaz, and is being charged with “activity against national security” as a result of his trade union activity. Such action is consistent with the approach of the Islamic Republic to trade union action. Two of the leaders of the Tehran Public Transportation Workers Union, Mansour Osanlou and Ebrahim Madadi, have recently begun prison sentences for “taking action against national security.” It is not surprising that organizations expressing support for the Haft Tapeh workers have included the Tehran transport workers as well as workers at Iran Khodro, Iran’s largest car maker.

Such solidarity, along with any trade union action in Iran, must be seen in the context of the state’s fierce opposition to independent trade union activity and the active promotion of tame company unions to fake compliance with International Labor Organization conventions. However, the growing number of trade unions forming in Iran, and subsequently taking action, suggests that the government strategy is not succeeding.

It is in recognition of this growing momentum inside Iran that the Committee for the Defense of the Iranian People’s Right (CODIR) renews its call for international solidarity with the workers at Haft Tapeh and demands an end to the imprisonment of Ali Nejati and members of the union’s executive board.

Consistent with its position over many years, in defense of the rights of the Iranian people, CODIR further condemns the attacks of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran upon all independent labor organisations and demands the release of all imprisoned trade union activists.

Jane Green is national campaign organizer for the Committee for the Defense of the Iranian People’s Right (CODIR). For further information on Iran and/or solidarity with the struggle for peace, democracy and human rights in Iran, visit or contact