When Hassan Rouhani launched his bid for presidency in 2013, one of his key promises was that he would usher in substantial improvements for workers and their families. Under his leadership, he said, employment prospects in Iran would “shine.”
Three years on, jailed labor activist Jafar Azimzadeh — who has launched successive hunger strikes while incarcerated — has written an open letter accusing Rouhani’s government of treating labor activists and protesting workers as “security-political” cases — in other words, a threat to national security.
So why and how has Rouhani failed to deliver on his promises, and what does it mean for workers in Iran?
Over the last year, authorities have continuously arrested labor activists following demonstrations, whether they are protesting against against poor working conditions or bad pay. The new wave of arrests has threatened prospects for negotiations between workers and the government.
According to labor activists, workers have come out to protest for a few key reasons:
- job loss and job insecurity due to the closure of factories;
- unpaid wages for months on end;
- low wages;
- discriminatory treatment of permanent staff versus contract workers;
- suppression of labor unions;
- recent amendments to labor laws.
In some cases, employers have punished workers by flogging them or ordering their arrest. Although the Rouhani administration is not directly responsible for finding a solution for many of these problems, the fact that the government has been slow to address the matters has been a continual source of frustration and anger.
In the final three months of the last Iranian calendar year (December 22, 2015 to March 19, 2016), 240,000 workers lost their jobs. According to Mehr News Agency, more than 93 percent of Iran’s laborers are contract workers. According to Rahmatollah Pour-Mousavi, Secretary General of the Supreme Workers’ Islamic Councils, in 2014, 70 percent of Iranian workers lived below the poverty line.
Dismal Safety Record
Iran also ranks very low when it comes to workers’ safety, ranking 107 out of 189 countries. Last year more than 2,000 workers lost their lives in work-related accidents. Of this number, 1,200 were construction workers. In 2013, more than 1,990 people lost their lives. Reports also indicate that a high number of work-related fatal accidents can be attributed to fatigue. Hasan Hefdahtan, the Deputy Minister for Labor and Welfare, points out that industrial accidents cost Iran close to $1 billion annually; other officials estimate that these accidents and work-related illnesses swallow up more than 2 percent of Iran’s gross domestic product (GDP).
IranWire talked to labor activist Behrooz Farahani about the deteriorating conditions for workers under President Rouhani’s administration. “Toward the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency,” he said, “for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, not only were those who supported independent workers' organizations or defended workers’ rights arrested and tortured, but even workers who sought to defend their own rights and wanted to keep their factories open or to receive their unpaid wages were arrested and charged with security crimes. This process has only intensified under Mr. Rouhani’s government.”
Authorities routinely arrest spokespeople or representatives who have been selected by workers to negotiate with employers or members of the government; often they are arrested as they arrive for negotiating talks. “They lose their jobs when a court case is opened against them,” said Farahani. “These are heavy blows to the labor movement, both for active workers and workers on strike. And this has become systematic under Rouhani.”
Workers as Threats to National Security
According to Farahani, statements from government spokespeople have made it clear why they view workers as potential security threats, and this is backed up by government policy. “Their priority is to make Iran a safe and stable place for foreign investments,” he said. “In pursuing his neo-liberal policies, Mr. Rouhani suppresses the labor movement to provide cheap labor for investments. The whole effort is based on providing cheap labor to compete with neighboring countries instead of investing in advanced technologies. They want to bring the labor cost in Iran as low as that in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam in order to attract foreign investment. The policies of flogging, imprisonment and lay-offs are neither accidental nor due to the kind of madness that occurred early on after the revolution. They are expressions of an organized project to turn Iran into an island of stability with cheap labor in the interests of foreign and domestic investors.”
When Iran announced a minimum wage for workers, a raft of protests soon followed. Critics said when officials set the amount minimum wage, they ignored both the laws of the Islamic Republic and the rate of inflation. In March 2016, the minimum wage was set at 812,000 tomans, or around $258 per month. Labor Minister Ali Rabiei insisted that “public interest” has been a factor in the decision.
IranWire asked Farahani what he believed “public interest” meant in this context. “As it happens, Mr. Rabiei is not off the mark,” he said. “He frankly says that ‘public interest’ in the Islamic republic means more pressure and poverty for workers. It means safeguarding the overall interests of investors. Otherwise, how can bringing down the workers’ purchasing power and salaries be in the public interest? Rabiei is a good example of the nature of the Islamic Republic, and of the relationship Rouhani’s government has with labor movements. He is a former official of the Workers’ House [the state-approved national labor union] and he is known among workers as a security agent of repression.”
“Fattening Up the One Percent”
Another factor in the deterioration of conditions for workers is privatization, which the Rouhani administration has made a key priority. Privatization gives employers more freedom to set their own rules and increase the number of workers on short contracts at the expense of good conditions and reasonable benefits for full-time employees.
Farahani believes that privatization in Iran means “fattening up the one percent” — those who are affiliated with the leadership or various political factions. According to him, this trend started with the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose administration sold off government entities to a select few. “During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, the trend favored the reformists,” Farahani said. “With Ahmadinejad the trend picked up speed. Now, under Rouhani, the fight is over who gets a bigger slice of the pie.”
Farahani gives the textile industry — an industry that has all but disappeared in Iran — as one example. “Privatization in Iran has resulted in the closing of many production units and widespread unemployment,” he said. “Rouhani’s government not only failed to put a brake on Ahmadinejad’s destructive policies, but these policies have been intensified further. This trend benefits the one percent and will result in more unemployment.”
Amendments to Iran’s Labor Laws — terms drawn up by Ahmadinejad’s second-term government —were tabled in parliament on July 3, and seem to support Farahani’s claims. At the time the reforms were drafted, the labor minister said that the bill was meant to “deregulate labor relations” and “facilitate investments,” but Naser Chamani, a member of the High Council of Labor Guilds, called it a “highly anti-labor” bill. And many more labor leaders and activists have raised their voices against the bill. Esmaili Zarifi Azad, director general of labor relations at the Labor Ministry, warned that “workers should not expect the bill to include their every single demand.”
Articles 7 and 17 of the amendments practically ban workers from protesting against employers’ decisions, and give employers the power to punish workers and even order their arrest. Employers can also terminate contracts with workers with much more ease. One Iranian labor advocacy union called the bill “a coup d’état against the constitution”.
Farahani said the amendments would deprive even more workers from the protection of the law and social security. “By making labor protests a crime, by characterizing any strike as economic sabotage, by crushing both the protesting workers and labor activists ,the amendments destroy the last vestiges of job security in order to reduce labor costs in the Islamic Republic to the bare minimum.”