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On 17 January 2017, after weeks of frustration, an Iranian baker named Ahmad Archadi set himself on fire in front of a government building in Ardebil, north-east Iran. He died in a hospital one day later, as a result of his fatal protest against the unfair distribution of subsidised wheat flour by local authorities. Archadi was under pressure from his bank over a loan for his small business, and he could not pay back the loan without receiving subsidised flour.
Workers such as Archadi find it difficult, if not impossible, to have their voices heard by the Iranian government. Independent trade unions are banned in Iran, and a number of trade unionists have been imprisoned for attempting to exercise their right to freedom of assembly and association. As a result, Iran’s 29 million workers face massive hurdles in their struggle for fundamental rights.
Despite social justice being a central tenet of the 1979 revolution, there has been no change to the rights, working conditions or status of Iran’s labouring class.
According to a report by the Iranian parliament, the minimum monthly wage for workers in 2016 was 813,000 tomans (about US$214), while the national poverty line was set at 2,400,000 tomans (about US$605) per month.
In Iran, the government is the biggest employer, but even the country’s nine million public sector employees aren’t guaranteed a stable job or regular monthly payments. Moreover, the purchasing power of public sector workers has declined dramatically over the last decade due to high inflation rates (10.04 percent in 2016) and international economic sanctions.
Labour rights groups say that the rights of Iranian workers have come under increasing attack during the last two decades. In 1997, temporary contracts were made legal, leading to the massive erosion of permanent positions. Nowadays, about 80 per cent of Iranian workers in both the private and public sectors are hired under short-term contracts of as little as 60 days.
In 2002, enterprises with fewer than 10 employees were exempted from Iran’s labour law. As a result, many employers routinely fire workers to keep their number of employees at below 10. In these enterprises, labourers work with blank contracts – temporary employment agreements that are signed by workers prior to the definition of the terms and conditions – creating the space for serious exploitation.
“There is a big gap between the promises of the Islamic government and the facts on the ground,” says Mansour Osanlou, a former political prisoner in Iran and a prominent trade union activist now living in exile in New York.
“Since 1979, the regime has undertaken various measures, such as organising attacks on syndicate members, the arbitrary arrest of union leaders, unfair trails and long-term sentences, to name just a few, in an effort to disrupt or prevent the formation of independent trade unions.”
A 2013 Human Rights Watch report also pointed out that “the Iranian government’s stranglehold on unionization and crackdown on labor rights activists have left workers without a voice to influence government policy and working conditions.”
In his 1985 book Labor Unions and Autocracy in Iran, the Iranian historian Habib Lajevardi theorised that autocratic governments in Iran have always been afraid of workers’ unions, simply because they have been scared of any sort of free elections.
“If workers were allowed to form their own organizations and elect their own leaders, how could the government continue to prevent the general public from electing their own representatives to the national legislature?” Ladjevardi wrote.
In the early 2000s, during Iran’s post-revolution reform era (1997-2005), a new wave of trade unionism began in the country. The Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (SWTSBC) was the first union to actively fight for the rights of its members in this period.
Shortly afterwards, the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA) was established nationwide. However, this spring of unionism quickly turned to winter, and most union leaders were arrested when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005.
“It’s not like we were free to stand up for our rights even during the reformist administration,” says Osanlou, who was an active member of SWTSBC when he lived in Iran. “But at that time, due to social demand for more freedom, we were pressured less and we could organise strikes and recruit new members.”
Nowadays, any attempts by workers to organise strikes are met with severe repercussions by security agents. “In the reform era, members of unions could at least call for a meeting and get together,” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director at the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, tells Equal Times. “Today, they don’t have any chance to publically organise an event.”
“However, some labour organisations have managed to work underground, but whenever they attempt to take action in public, they get targeted by the government,” he adds.
Meanwhile, pressure on independent unionists has mounted to such a level that, in a recent interview with a Persian language internet TV channel, Hashem Khastar, a retired teacher and a member of ITTA, said: “[With the 1979 revolution] we were supposed to turn the barracks into schools, but now schools are being turned into barracks.”
ITTA is one the most influential unions in Iran due to the large number of working teachers in Iran (about 1.3 million) and their vital role in raising awareness amongst young people. That is why the government has meted out such harsh punishment to suppress this union.
On 5 March 2017, in reaction to the ongoing crackdown against unions, members of the ITTA organised protests in different Iranian cities and demanded the release of their jailed leader, Esmail Abdi.
In February 2016, 42-year-old Abdi, a mathematics teacher and a professional chess coach, was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of “distributing propaganda against the establishment” and “disrupting public order and security”.
This is not the first time Abdi has faced such charges. In 2015, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards arrested him to stop him from travelling to Canada to attend an international teachers’ conference.
Back then, Education International (EI), a federation of unions representing more than 32 million education employees worldwide, organised a global campaign to secure Abdi’s release.
Dominique Marlet, a senior coordinator at EI, tells Equal Times that the charges against Abdi are “unjust and contravene various human right conventions, including those protecting freedom of expression and association, as well as the right of unions to be consulted on education policies”.
She adds: “The authorities are attempting to silence teachers’ grievances through repression and the extended incarceration of unionists and activists.”
Abdi is not the only Iranian trade unionist in prison, nor is the government’s ban on independent unions limited to the ITTA. Reza Shahabi, a member of the governing board of SWTSBC, Mohammad Reza Ahangar, a labour activist from the Kurdish city of Kamyaran, and Behnam Ebrahimzadeh, a labour and children’s rights activist, are all facing long prison sentences in Iran.
Despite the unprecedented pressure on Iranian trade unions, many observers believe that it is impossible to suppress the fight for workers’ rights in Iran.
“Union activism has a long history in Iran and is deep-rooted in the country,” Ghaemi says. “The Iranian workforce knows that their working situation will improve only if they collectively and fairly negotiate with their employers.”
From Ghaemi’s viewpoint, the Iranian nuclear deal, and the lifting of sanctions against Iran could be a new opportunity for workers to reorganise unions. “Iran is very eager to attract European companies and do business with them, and this could be a chance for Iranian activists,” explains Ghaemi.
“All EU companies are committed to guaranteeing responsible business behaviour. When those companies go to Iran they can support basic workers’ rights,” he adds.
“Even if the Iranian government does not allow for a nationwide organisation to be formed, European companies can support the rights of labourers to organise small local unions and partake in collective representation.”
Mehrnoush Cheragh Abadi is a freelance journalist focusing on social and cultural topics in Iran.