International Alliance in Support of Workers in Iran (IASWI)






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Current conditions of workers in Iran*


I would like to begin with some data about the present condition of working class in Iran. According to the Statistics Centre of Iran, from the total population of 75 million people, around 23 million are “economically active”.  By this term, the Statistics Centre of Iran includes all employees, employers, self employed and also all unemployed who are looking for a job. From this 23 million, 7. 5 millions are industrial workers, working in factories and production units.  If we add other workers such as those working in transport, building and construction and other manual workers, the total is approximately 10 million. In the data published by the Statistics Centre of Iran, teachers, nurses and other office workers are not considered as part of the working class. Clearly, they should be counted as members of the working class. Taking them into account, the working class in Iran totals around 16 million people.   These 16 million workers and their families form a big majority in Iran. Here I have to say we should treat this data with a great deal of caution as official statistics in Iran are not quite accurate.   In what follows I would concentrate more on working conditions of that 10 million manual workers, who are working in factorise, construction, and transport and so on.

As a result of neoliberal economic policies which was implemented by government of Rafsanjani after the war with Iraq in 1988, and continued during the presidency of Khatemi and Ahmadinejad, around 80 % to 90% workers are currently employed as temporary workers with written or verbal contract, or working with so called white signature (Meaning workers sign a blank paper so that employers can later write the term of contract). For all these workers job insecurity and the prospect of losing their job is a constant threat, especially when the rate of unemployment is very high, meaning millions of people are ready to take any job available. According to official figures the rate of unemployment is 12%.  But this rate is based on false calculations where anybody who works even just one hour per week is considered as employed.  This official rate therefore is false. According to independent research, the real unemployment rate is around 20%. Based on semi official reports 40 to 50 percent of university graduates are unemployed. So the rate of unemployment in Iran is similar to that of crises hit economies like Greece and Spain.   The only difference is that while the Spanish and Greek economies have been contracting by rate of around 5% annually during past few years, Iran is not officially in recession, but growing around 1%.   This is due to around hundred billions of dollars of annual revenue obtained by oil and gas export.

 The minimum wage set for current year is about 389,000 Toman which equates to 230 dollars per month.  This wage is one quarter of the poverty line which stands around 900 dollars per month.  Worse still, many workers, especially women, work for wages less than the minimum wage. ILNA, a semi official news agency, quoted Farmarz Tofighi, a member of an official organisation called Tehran Wage Committee, saying that “60 % workers received minimum wage, therefore 60% of workers who work lawfully are living below the absolute poverty line”. Another data indicates that more than 10 million Iranians are below absolute poverty, while another 30 million are below the relative poverty line.   All this is happening in an oil and gas rich country with large amount of annual revenue from exporting these natural resources.

 The gap between the rich and poor under the Islamic regime is huge and widening.  Only last year, 400 Porsche cars were imported for the super rich. Corruption at the high level of the regime is endemic. Just to give you an example, a few months ago it was officially announced that 3 billion dollar has been stolen through the banking system. Some officials with ministerial position have been involved. The case is in the court and rival factions in the regime accusing each other for being involved. The truth is both factions are equally guilty. This case so far is the biggest but still only one of many. 

 The other issue which Iranian workers are facing is delayed or non payment of wages. In hundreds of cases, workers have not been paid for many months and in some cases for more than two years.  Just to give you an example, workers at three textile plants call Mahnakh, Farnakh, and Naznakh, in the city of Qazvin, the province which I come from, are owed three years in non payment of wages.  The plants have been closed and despite dozens of mass protests by these workers nobody has answered to their legitimate demands.  Indeed during the last few years there has not been a single day without workers in different parts of Iran protesting against delayed or non payment of wages.

Factory closure and sacking of workers is a common feature of life for many workers. A recent and highly publicised case is that of Shahap Khodro plant in Tehran, which produces heavy vehicles and buses. When 650 workers returned for work after the Iranian New Year holiday, they found themselves behind closed gates and simply were told that the factory has been shutdown and their service no longer required. The same thing has happened to hundreds of metal workers in Tehran.

Factories' closure has accelerated following imposition of economic sanctions against Iran.  Most of Iran’s factories are dependent on import of spare parts and raw materials from abroad. With sanctions in place, it has become very hard if not impossible to import parts and raw materials required. Therefore many companies are forced to close or are operating on much less than their full capacity, and are sacking their labour forces.  Some officials are reported to have said that tsunami of the factory closures as a result of sanctions is approaching very fast.   

Last year, Ahmadinejad's government implemented the neoliberal policy of elimination of all state subsidies to basic consumer goods such as bred, rice, water, electricity, fuels and so on. The plan is called “target subsidising”.  In practice instead of subsidising these consumer goods the government has paid every individual 44 000 Toman (23 Dollars) every month. As a result of implementation of this policy rate of inflation and especially price of food and utility bills went up rapidly and therefore majority of people have become worse off.  Official rate of inflation is 22 percent but according to some estimation, the actual rate of inflation is running around 40 percent. Of course, economic sanctions against Iran have contributed to the rise of inflation and if not lifted people would face even more acceleration of prices. Sanctions therefore are accelerating the pace of factory closures and rate of inflation, and causing more hardship for the working class and ordinary people. Economic sanctions and threat of military attack against Iran are reactionary policies of western capitalist powers and has nothing to do with the workers or human rights; therefore these policies must be condemned and opposed by socialists, trade unions and progressive forces.

Given this state of affairs, it is obvious that the working class in Iran are mostly on the defensive. Workers are mainly struggling to maintain their wages and working conditions rather than improving them.

The protests against factory closures, redundancies and delayed wage payments, although wide spread, are not coordinated nationally or at the provincial level. This is due to state repression which does not tolerate setting up any independent workers' organisations. There have been two exceptional cases during the last decade and that is Tehran bus workers' syndicate, and Haft Tapeh sugarcane workers syndicate.

Bus workers' syndicate was set up in a long battle by workers in 2005, and when workers decided to hold a strike for better wages and working conditions, security forces invaded the homes of hundreds of bus drivers in the early morning and arrested many active syndicate members, and in some cases, members of their families. Strike was put down and many members including members of the board of directors were sacked and then sentenced to imprisonment. As you are aware, Mansour Osanloo president of the syndicate spent five years in prison and was released last year. Ebrahim Maddai, the vice president, was released last month after serving his 3.5 years in jail.  Two weeks ago, Reza Shahabi, the treasurer of the syndicate, after two years of incarceration, was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment and five years of silence (meaning no activities whatsoever for five years).

 Workers of Haft Tapeh syndicate received similar treatment.  In 2007- 8 around five thousand workers at Haft Tapeh fought a long battle against plant closure to save their jobs. In the process they managed to set up their syndicate in 2008 and saved the plant from being closed.  But workers activists were severely punished; all members of the board of directors were sacked and sentenced to imprisonment, including Reza Rakhshan and Ali Nejati who is currently serving second prison sentence lasting six months.

At present, both syndicates are prevented by the regime to function. They are considered unlawful and do not have their own office. 

The main obstacle faced by Iranian workers to set up their own independent organisations as I mentioned is brutal repression used by the Islamic regime against any attempt to set up such organisations. All labour activists are constantly targeted and persecuted and many have been sacked, charged and sentenced to prisons, fines and so on. The regime is well aware of the fact that independent workers organisation is its Achilles Heel. 

There are other obstacles too. One is the fragmentation of many plants in different sectors. Many large industries such as oil and gas have been divided into different sections and work being contracted out to private contractors which hire workers on different terms. Therefore, the workforces are fragmented and in many plants they do not see each other.  Another obstacle is that the vast majority of industrial workers are working in factories with less than 10 workers who have no protections according to various anti-worker legislations.  This makes it very hard to set up not only an umbrella organisation but also any types of worker organization to include all these workers.

Non manufacturing sections of work force such as teachers and nurses or bus drivers are relatively in a better position to organise themselves. But they have not been able to do so, due to severe repression. Dozens of teacher activists have been prosecuted and sentenced to imprisonment. 

In spite of all these obstacles, demand for setting up independent workers organisations among Iranian workers class is strong.   More workers have realised that to defend their livelihood they have to organise themselves and fight collectively. It is not difficult to predict that in case of any crack in the political system and weakening force of repression we would be able to see hundreds of independent working class organisations being established by workers.  Such was the case during the Iranian revolution of 1979.  During the revolution, workers' councils (Shora) were set up everywhere in large and small workplaces.  As a matter of fact, it was the oil workers strike which broke the backbone of the shah's regime. During their strike, oil workers managed to set up their own workers' council.

The Islamic regime upon taking power, in order to establish itself brutally suppressed and rooted out all these workers' councils and other independent workers organisations.  Worker’s activists were sacked, imprisoned, exiled and some were executed. 

This brings me to the final point.   Any real and progressive political and social change, let alone the revolution, is dependent on the rise of the working class movement against the Islamic regime.  We saw this during Iranian revolution and saw it again recently during the revolutions in Tunisia and especially in Egypt. It was the wave of strikes by Egyptian workers which contributed significantly to downfall of Mubarak.

 In Iran,  one of the reasons for fast defeat and disappearance of mass protests which erupted following the 2009 presidential election was the absence of an organised working class in that protest. Of course, many workers as individuals participated in the protests. The point is that workers did not play any role as a collective body, as a class, in that protests.

But to stand for and to make real change in society, the Iranian working class  in their struggle needs to articulate and put forward their demands and play a leading role in a mass movements to implement their demands. To do so, the working class must address demands of other social movements such as women and students movements.    

There are signs that indicate this is happening: during the last few years, workers' organisations and workers' activists in their joint statements for May Day have called not only for immediate implementation of better wages and working conditions, but also addressing   large social and political issues such as gender equality, abolishment of capital punishment, freedom of expression, decent pensions, free health care for all and so on. This is an important step forward to make a real change, towards an equal society beyond capitalism.  


*This is the complete text of the speech by Ayob Rahmani of the IASWI at the May Day Seminar in London, UK on May 4, 2012,


See: May Day seminar in London, UK, May 4, 2012: workers' movements in Egypt, UK and Iran    






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