After decades of war and domestic conflicts, Iraq might not appear as a mecca for job seekers, but many workers from southwestern Iran have recently been going there to work and make a living. IranWire spoke to a woman and a man in Abadan, on the Iranian side of the border, who work in Iraq for a few days each week.
The monthly salary of ordinary workers in Iran barely reaches 10 million tomans, a bit over $200 on the open currency market and, with the upsurge in inflation and the increase in the prices of basic goods, many families have no choice but to migrate to neighboring countries.
For skilled workers in southern Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar and Oman have always been destinations of skilled workers. Now, however, simple workers, sports coaches and owners of beauty salons are also migrating to earn a living.
Years ago, the old men of the family would say they were “Kuwaitis,” meaning that they went to Kuwait to work. In the years before the 1979 revolution, many people from the south and even the residents of the southwestern province of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari used to travel to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Drivers and skilled workers worked there for six months before returning to Iran with enough money in their pockets to live for the next six months.
In Shahrekord, the provincial capital of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, and in many cities in the southern part of Khuzestan province, neighborhoods, markets or arcades were called “Kuwaiti.” Now, Iraq has become the main destination of migrant workers from Khuzestan.
Adnan is the alias of a skilled worker in the city of Abadan who prefers not to reveal his profession. “I really do not want any trouble,” he tells IranWire with a laugh. “It is a small town and people know each other. If I talk about my profession everybody would know who I am.”
“After the collapse of Metropol building last year, most big construction projects in Abadan were abandoned,” Adnan says. “Among those who worked in these projects, some were able to find other jobs and some who owned a car went into carrying passengers, but these jobs don’t pay for the expenses. Going to Iraq is not a problem for us. We speak the language and they pay the wages in dollars. Why not go?"
Adnan says that the construction sector in southern Iraq is booming: “I’m a skilled worker and I work in Basra. I work five days a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and then I return to Abadan. My salary is about $1,200 a month, almost three times what I would earn if I worked in Iran. Some workers who know concrete pouring, welding and plumbing may even earn up to $2,000 a month.”
In an interview, Jahanbakhsh Sanjabi Shirazi, secretary general of the Iran-Iraq Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that Iranian skilled workers are paid an average monthly salary of around $600, three to four times what they would make in Iran.
According to him, many Iraqi employers provide skilled workers with accommodations and dormitories.
He said that Iraq ranks fifth among the top destinations of migrant workers from Iran, after Oman, Qatar, Turkey and Armenia, countries that have also attracted Iranian technicians and skilled workers in various fields.
Nava and her husband Samir are both hairdressers. Until two years ago, Samir was renting a small shop in Abadan for his hair salon. And Nava was renting a chair in one of the prominent hairdressing salons: "I kept 60 percent [of the money] and the salon owner 40 percent, but it was really no good. My husband left in the morning and came back in the evening but, at the end of the month, we had nothing left to show for it.”
On the recommendation of a friend, the couple went to Basra to work: "We are working in a very modern salon both for women and men. I do nails, eyelashes and makeup. There are many foreign workers, from Russians to Turks. But it's not bad for me either. My husband doesn't get as much work as I do. But recently trimming the groom’s hair has become fashionable here and if a groom comes to him he does it nicely.”
"We work for 8 to 10 hours a day and, for any kind of work, they pay you almost three times what you get in Iran. When I was in Iran, my husband and I used to work for 12 hours a day, but we couldn’t pay for our living expenses. Recently, when I went to the supermarket to buy a few items we need every day, I had to spend half of my daily income, even though we have no children and we live on the top floor of my father-in-law’s home.”
Escape or Exporting “Surplus Workforce”?
In recent years, Iranian workers, especially skilled workers, have consistently protested the disparity between their wages and ballooning inflation, but their demands have been met with repression.
In the past few years, many Iranian media outlets have published alarming articles about the emigration of workers from Iran, but studies show that the issue has never been as serious as this year.
Islamic Republic officials have closed their eyes to the workers’ escape, and Omid Malek, director general of the Labor Ministry’s Office for Expanding Employment, has claimed that Iran was only “sending surplus workforce” to other countries.
According to business journalist Leyli Khameneh, sending workers abroad can benefit the Iranian economy, provided it is for a limited period of time and that it aims at training these workers, updating their skills, increasing their knowledge and so on.
“In Turkey, many young people migrate to other countries to work after completing their education with the aim of learning skills, but in most cases they plan to return to serve their own country,” says Khameneh. “In Iran, however, specialists, the elite, academic figures and investors leave the country and emigrate for good because the situation in Iran is such a mess that they do not entertain the idea of returning. Now, skilled and even simple workers leave the country, permanently or temporarily, just to make a living, and this has nothing to do with ‘sending surplus workforce’ to other countries.”
The continuing drop in the value of the Iranian currency has left wage earners no other choice. Under such conditions, the primary aim of workers is to make a living, not to safeguard any asset they might have in Iran. And when they have a chance to receive their wages in dollars in neighboring countries and spend it in Iran, they grab it.
“Unemployment is a serious problem in all Iranian provinces, but in a province like Khuzestan ethnic Arabs deeply feel discrimination in finding a job,” says Khameneh. “With an unemployment rate of over 15 percent, the two provinces of Khuzestan and Hormozgan have the highest unemployment rate in Iran.”
She says that the government has never cared about job creation: “In his campaign promises, [President Ebrahim] Raisi said he would create 1 million jobs every year. According to statistics provided by domestic sources, 500,000 jobs were created annually in the past couple of years, mainly in startups and the internet. However, in the past 11 months, the internet situation in Iran has been such that they cannot receive any income. Just look at the news. Now the Republic of Georgia is hiring Iranian shepherds. This is what happens when statesmen keep repeating that those who don't like it in Iran should just go. And, of course, workers do go when they find a chance.”