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Iran: Unpaid wages and corruption at the core of new wave of mass strikes and protests

Amid crushing economic conditions, demonstrations and strikes by workers have sprung up in Iran over unpaid wages and poor working conditions, demanding the implementation of job-classification law and their overdue wages and benefits. On Saturday 2 August, a new wave hit different sectors and plants, including the Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane industrial complex and the oil and gas industry.

In an interview with the International Observatory of Human Rights (IOHR), Mehdi Kouhestaninejad, a Canada-based Iranian labour activist, said: 

“The protests right now did not start now, they started in 1979.” 

Why are workers protesting in Iran?

For the last couple of years, Iranian general strikes have been carried out against economic hardships and government corruption, with protesters calling for economic stability, the prosecution of corrupt government officials, and for workers’ rights. Many workers say they have not received their wages for months, while others emphasise the lack of job security and difficult conditions.

“The uprisings are not just taking place in Tehran but in the south, north, west and east of Iran,” Mr Kouhestaninejad told IOHR.

The Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Industrial Complex has seen protests continually taking place for the last couple of months. On Saturday, workers at the plant marked the 48th day of their strike.  The sugarcane workers are demanding immediate payment of three-month overdue wages, renewal of their insurance, the return of fired employees, immediate arrest of the company’s CEO, Omid Assadbeigi, and sentencing him and the chairman of the company’s board of directors, Mehrdad Rostami Chegini, to life imprisonment. The owners are also involved in a $1.5 billion Forex corruption case.

The Haft Tappeh example shows that although US sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy and the government’s ability to bail out troubled companies, corruption and mismanagement are at the core of many labour protests. 

Mr Kouhestaninejad told IOHR that while the sanctions have undoubtedly affected Iran’s economy, the situation for workers’ rights in Iran has remained the same since 1979. 

In one of the sessions of the Forex trial, the prosecutor alleged that the CEO of Haft Tappeh and one of its owners, has deliberately not paid the workers’ wages as a tool to put pressure on the court to acquit him, presumably being aware of the complications that workers’ protests and strikes will create for the government. 

The economic situation in Iran might worsen, however, as the US has threatened to tighten sanctions if Iran signs a $400 billion trade deal with China. During an interview on 2 August, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in response to a question on the agreement that it,

“shouldn’t be surprising that regimes that don’t respect freedom at home and foment national security problems abroad would want to join hands” and added that the United States will be sure to enforce all the provisions it has and apply all Iran sanctions, “to the Chinese Communist Party and their businesses and state-owned enterprises as well”.

Pompeo also pointed out that the new US sanctions on Iran, filed on Friday 31 July, which included expanding sanctions to Iran’s metals industry, will also try to stop the lifting of the JCPOA weapons embargo that will expire in October. 

In response, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the US of trying to stir anti-government protests by imposing sanctions that he said are aimed at bankrupting the country.

The dire situation for workers’ rights in Iran

In recent years, unpaid wages and benefits in Iran have become a major issue for workers. Trade unions are banned and while there are similar organisations called Islamic labour councils, they are not adequate and above all, they are not independent. The International Trade Union Confederation has ranked Iran a ‘category five’ country – the worst level for a non-failed state. 

The Iranian Labour Code (ILC) is one of the main legal documents for the protection of labour, but according to a report from Small Media, more than half of the Iranian workforce is not covered by the ILC today. 

Furthermore, the Islamic Republic arrests whoever participates in labour protests. Dozens of labor activists have been detained in the past two years, while some have been sentenced to prison and others have received lashes as such protests often come at a high personal price.

Last month, the Arak criminal court sentenced 42 workers from Azarab Industries to one year in prison, 74 lashes, and one month of forced labour for protesting the non-payment of wages. They had not been paid for May and June of this year, yet the court ruled that the workers who took part in demonstrations are guilty of disrupting public order and insulting public officials. 

“We know that 500 trade unionists are currently behind bars and that over 10,000 people are in prison for work-related issues,” Mr Kouhestaninejad told IOHR.

If the workers do get paid, the minimum monthly wage is as meager as $80 while a family of three needs at least $300 per month to cover the basic costs of living, according to Faramarz Tofighi, the chairman of the wages committee of the Association of Islamic Labor Councils.

Workers and COVID-19 

The outbreak of COVID-19 has further complicated the situation for workers and the protests come despite a deadly coronavirus pandemic that has killed at least 16,000 and infected nearly 300,000 in Iran, numbers that are believed by many to be underreported. The country has in recent weeks faced a surge in COVID-19 fatalities, resulting in increased calls on Iranians to respect hygiene and social-distancing protocols.

According to the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), workers are also worried about the spread of coronavirus among them. 

“Forty of our colleagues are now in isolation due to COVID-19,” one of the workers was quoted by ILNA as saying.

The string of unrest among workers is causing pressure to mount on Iran’s Islamic government, which in November 2019 used lethal force against protesters on city streets throughout the country angry over a sudden rise in the price of gasoline. Many repeated chants against top leaders and at least hundreds are estimated to have been killed.


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