Seventy Iranian cities have witnessed more than 406 labor protests since the beginning of the year, as dozens of trade union and labor activists have been subjected to severe reprisals just for trying to assert labor rights.
That’s according to the second Worker Rights Watch biannual report on worker protests and legal developments in Iran between January to June 2022 published by the Netherland-based Volunteer Activists (VA) non-profit organization.
“I think the biggest challenge for Iranian workers is the violation of the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining,” VA Executive Director Sohrab Razaghi said in an email to IranWire. “There are 24 million workers in Iran, this is a very large group and most of them have similar issues: 95% of workers have temporary contracts, low wages, and harsh working conditions. Their biggest challenge is, however, that they are powerless against the state and employers.”
Unrest has rattled Iran since the summer of 2022 in response to declining living standards, wage arrears and a lack of welfare support, as the economy deteriorated following years of mismanagement compounded by crippling US sanctions.
The September death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini sparked months of nationwide demonstrations that breathed new life into the labor protest movement.
While the “Women, Life, Freedom” demonstrations decreased in intensity earlier this year, workers and labor activists continued their protest actions, including marches to the parliament building, strikes, sit-ins and online campaigns which the VA report says “aimed at changing law-making together with other representatives of Iran’s civil society.”
Despite the government's “suppressive tactics,” the number of labor protests in various economic sectors such as oil, railway maintenance and cargo transport rose fourfold from April to June this year, compared with the same period last year, according to VA’s research.
In response to the labor protests, dozens of trade union and labor activists have been fired, denied salaries, arrested and prosecuted, while the government also “attempted to appease certain worker groups by making some concessions.”
Seventy-four teacher activists were among those arrested; Sixteen workers are currently behind bars.
“We see more and more that employers threaten to fire workers if they protest,” Razaghi said. “We have seen many examples of this, with worker representatives being fired during negotiation with employers. Employers have gotten more restrictive on worker protests, and they see that workers do not get support from anywhere. This makes the employers more confident in violating the labour law and restricting worker activism.”
According to the report, the main reasons behind the protests included:
Unindexed wages, benefits, and pensions: With Iran grappling with international sanctions and economic mismanagement, inflation has skyrocketed, leading to a surge in food prices. However, wages, pensions and benefits have not been consistently adjusted to keep up with these price hikes. As a result, widespread poverty has afflicted workers and their families, making it challenging for them to afford basic necessities like rent, food, clothing and medical expenses.
Late wage payment: Many workers don’t get paid for months, with the delays having a significant impact on the welfare of the workers and their families.
Unsafe work environment: More than 10,000 workers suffered injuries in work-related incidents between May 2021 and May 2022, while over 800 lost their lives, according to human rights activists.
Lack of pay scales: There is a growing dissatisfaction with the lack of transparency in salary determinations, with nepotism influencing allocation instead of objective guidelines. The problem is particularly acute in the public sector, where demands for the introduction of progressive pay scales and grading systems based on knowledge, experience and performance evaluations have increased.
Job insecurity: Tragic instances such as workers ending their lives after sudden dismissals have underscored the high levels of job insecurity in Iran. The prevalence of temporary contracts leaves workers vulnerable to economic pressures, leading to anxiety and despair.
Company Mismanagement: Workers' protests are occasionally directed at the mismanagement and dysfunctionality of the companies they work for.
Lack of freedom of association: Iranian labor activists have called for the recognition of independent trade unions and freedom of association. While labor unions technically aren't prohibited, they face significant obstacles to registration and licensing, rendering independent unions and their activities effectively illegal.
“Change comes from power, and power comes from organization and association. Collectively, workers can be powerful, but they are not organized and cannot unionize in Iran,” according to Razaghi. “This is also why the regime is preventing the formation of independent unions and independent worker associations.”