Spike in Labour Protest in Iran is Changing the Political Milieu
In the past weeks labor protests and strikes have increased across Iran with workers speaking out against layoffs and nonpayment of wages. Iran’s ailing economy has not recovered from the nuclear sanctions and even after the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal, workers’ living conditions have not improved.
- Caption to feature picture: Workers of Heavy Equipment Production Company (HEPCO) and the Azarab Industries Company in Arak, Iran protest unpaid wages
As the labor movement in Iran is building up wider networks and demanding rights, the Iranian state is squashing protests, arresting workers and slapping them with long term prison sentences.
The sharp increase in the number of labor protests in the past few months suggests that in the near future, the Iranian labor movement is going to transform the political equation in Iran and more workers are going to be voices of dissent.
The main problem Iranian workers face: nonpayment of wages and mass layoffs. Employers – many of whom are government entities or private manufacturers closely affiliated with the state, are holding back paychecks and/or laying off employees without relief packages. With no feasible social security plan the workers go on strike or come to the streets to protest.
In response, the state is suppressing a nationwide labor movement in the making.
In the most recent crackdown on 19 September, antiriot police attacked workers of Heavy Equipment Production Company (HEPCO) and the Azarab Industries in Arak, Iran. The workers were protesting between four to six months of unpaid wages.
The images and clips distributed by workers on social media horrified Iranian viewers. Workers were attacked and dozens of them were arrested. Many of those arrested were wounded and bleeding as they were being taken away.
“I do not have bread to eat. I cannot afford to pay for my wife and children!” HEPCO worker said in the street protest adding: “How many miles do I have to walk in protest?”
The strikes and protests are not limited to industrial sector (which has suffered the most from the sanction era) but also civil servants, government workers, retired government workers, teachers, nurses, mine workers, and public transport employees like the bus drivers of city of Tehran who have all protested in the past six months.
The government, represented by the president Hassan Rouhani, is in charge of the budget and marinating of the economic prosperity. The state, represented by the Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not helping the government out.
Oil prices have fallen from $120 to $40 a barrel, Donald Trump’s treats to ‘rip up’ Iran nuclear deal has further made the Iranian market unstable and undesirable for foreign investors and Iranian Rial dropped against major foreign currencies as of September 8th.
The state is supporting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and huge financial costs of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s interventions in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Powerful institutions such as the IRGC are shaping Iran’s economy and instead of investing in the infrastructure, manufacturing sector and jobs, money is being spent on war and warfare – an area that IRI thinks is of utmost importance for its survival in the region.
As such even the oil and gas workers that once lived relatively prosperous lives in Iran are not secure anymore. On 22 September, Haffari Shomal, an oil rig company laid off more than 70 of its workers. The same company laid off more than 150 workers last year (excluding the 70 recent firings).
The widespread corruption at all governmental levels and especially at the level of oil and gas and manufacturing sectors is not helping the Iranian economy or the Iranian worker.
The blows of the nuclear sanctions era have not ended despite the agreement that was reached between Iran and the world powers. Sanctions on the banking system and various economic sectors, have kept the economy paralyzed. United States banks do not engage in transactions with Iranian banks and non-U.S. banks will not risk their financial institutions’ status in the United States by doing business with Iran.
Insecurities are not only about jobs, with no meaningful social security programs, the Iranian workers are insecure about their very livelihood.
The manufacturing sector – which has become somewhat privatized with the help of the rentier state in the past 30 years is now shutting down. Those that are not closing shop are firing permanent workers in hope of finding cheaper labor and temporary workers.
Workers who are amongst the ethnic minority groups are hit harder by the state crackdown. On 24 September, Mozafar Salehania, a member of the board of the Free Trade Union of Iranian Workers, was arrested at his workplace in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj. Three days before him, Mokhtar Asadi, of the teacher’s union in city of Sanandaj was arrested.
The disciplining of Kurdish workers has been high on the agenda of state for the past couple of years. In December of 2015 Kurdish miners of Agh Dareh gold mines staged a number of protests which earned many miners imprisonment, flogging and hefty fines.
The problem is not only with the private sector in the Kurdish region. Even civil servants are living life with delayed wages. In Marivan, city workers have not received their paychecks for the past three months, that is July to September.
Amongst all this however, a strong labor movement is shaping. The visible rise in the number of labor strikes, rallies, protests and sit-ins in the month of September 2017 are all marked by the workers demanding the release of their trade union activists or leaders. Among them Reza Shahbi of the Trade Union of the Tehran and Suburbs Vahed Bus Company.
Reza Shahabi, was arrested in 2010 and sentenced to six years in prison. He went on medical furlough after four years but was taken back to prison despite his medical condition which requires regular treatment. As of August 8th Shahabi went on hunger strike in Rejai Shahr prison in Karaj protesting his lack of access to adequate medical care.
Shahbi’s photo has been spotted in many of the worker protests in the months of September in Iran. His fellow bus drivers have been protesting his arrest and imprisonment by driving during daylight with their headlights on.
Most recently on September 25, Tehran bus drivers gathered in front of the Ministry of Labor demanding Shahabi’s release. A couple of days before this protest they staged a sit-in, in front of Iranian parliament.
Similarly leaders and activists of the teacher’s movement in Iran, Esmail Abdi and Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi, who are also imprisoned, are becoming usual names and faces of protests across country.
Leadership of the workers movements are gaining more recognition, both in labor protests but also among general public and in social media. And this is fostering more solidarity among labor activists across nation, which could ultimately lead to more power and politicization of workers movement in Iran.