“I’m Kaveh the blacksmith — I will not stand for injustice!” This is one of the most recent chants shouted out by striking workers from the Iran National Steel Industrial Group. “Kaveh” refers to a figure in Iranian mythology who led a popular uprising against a ruthless foreign ruler, and the quintessential Iranian symbol of the fight against tyranny and injustice.
December 2 marked the 23rd day of protests by Khuzestan steelworkers. First they went on strike and held rallies, and for the past 18 days they have taken to the streets, trying to ensure their voices are heard by the public and authorities alike. On Sunday, December 2, they again staged a rally outside the offices of the provincial government and then moved to the offices of the governor of Ahvaz, the provincial capital. The more than 4,000 workers employed by the Ahvaz steel complex are demanding the resumption of the production line, the return of the factory to public ownership and the payment of all their overdue wages.
Informed sources report that a number of university students and ordinary citizens from Ahvaz joined the steelworkers’ rally. One video posted on social media shows a middle-aged woman standing beside the steelworkers chanting: “They climbed Islam to trample on people.”
Let Syria Go
Since the beginning of the protests, "Leave Syria to its own; care about us" has been another popular chant. According to one steelworker, protesters chant this in the hopes that Iranian authorities will be reminded of the significant portion of Iranian capital spent on military aims in Syria and Iraq — money that could be used to solve problems within Iran’s own borders.
In addition to fighting for their own demands, steelworkers are also well aware of the striking workers at the Haft-Tappeh sugarcane complex.
Two sugar refinery workers, Esmail Bakhshi and Ali Nejati, have been under arrest since late November, and the steelworkers have remembered them in their chants. “Release Haft-Tappeh workers,” they shout out. So far the two workers’ colleagues and labor activists have not been successful in securing their release. It has been reported that Bakhshi has been hospitalized after being beaten and tortured by security agents.
“All workers are one,” Meysam Al-e Mehdi, a representative for the steelworkers, told people at a protest rally. “We feel the pain as one. Workers have the power to demand their rights. The time that the workers were slaves is over. Today we are a power and we will prove it. Our Haft-Tappeh friends must be released.”
Other slogans shouted out on Sunday, December 2, included “People are punished for their votes by high prices and inflation,” and “Rouhani: Answer for inflation and high prices!" This anger is in stark contrast to the days of Rouhani’s presidential campaign, when a photo of a particular worker made the rounds on social networks. It showed a man in worker’s garb holding a picture of Rouhani and, with tears in his eyes, watching him address the crowd. Later, Rouhani’s campaign team searched for and found the man, and the auto manufacturer Iran Khodro gave him a car as gift. The photo — and the appreciation he received — gave many workers hope that Rouhani’s government would make their lives better. But today those hopes are dashed.
$30 Billion Gone Missing
The street protests are taking place at a time when news of widespread embezzlement, theft and corruption among the higher echelons of the Islamic Republic emerge on a daily basis. In an interview with the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), the reformist Saeed Leylaz, a former advisor to President Mohammad Khatami, reported that in the last 10 months alone, $30 billion has “disappeared” from Iran’s banking system [Persian link]. Such news has been reflected in the chants by protesting steelworkers.
On November 27, in an interview with the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), Gholamreza Shariati, governor of Khuzestan province, claimed that two months’ back pay had been deposited in the steelworkers’ accounts and asked them to return to their jobs [Persian link]. But during the December 1st protests, one steelworker denied the claim. “Tell the truth,” he says. “Mr. Governor, Mr. Representative, don’t play with public opinion. These workers are tired. They are suffering and they have had it. They must make a living. Mr. Jazayeri — the Friday Imam and Ahvaz’s representative to the Assembly of Experts — didn’t you say two months ago in your Friday Prayers sermon that if the problems of [steelworkers] are not solved, you and the people of Ahvaz would come to the streets on the side of the workers. Where are you now?”
In October 2017, the National Bank of Iran sold Iran National Steel Industrial Group to Abdolreza Mousavi, the owner of a major soccer club in Ahvaz and two hotels in Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, as well as the managing director of Zagros Airlines. Soon after he took over, he stopped paying the workers. “Those in these protests who pretend to be workers are paid mercenaries,” he wrote on his Instagram page. He has also said that of the 4,900 steelworkers employed by the company, 2,000 are “surplus.” This means these 2,000 workers will lose their jobs in the not-too-distant future.
Arrest and Torture of Protesting Workers, November 29, 2018
The Rise and Fall of Haft-Tappeh Sugar Factory, November 22, 2018
Living on the Margins in Iran: The Rise and Fall of Khuzestan, November 2, 2018
The Plight of Iran’s Unpaid Workers, April 10, 2018