Since the afternoon of Monday, September 16, photos of injured and bloodied workers at the Heavy Equipment Production Company (Hepco) have been published and shared on social media. It’s the latest chapter in the turbulent history of a company and its employees, years after its ill-conceived and ill-executed privatization.
In a severe attack on a peaceful protest by Hepco workers, anti-riot police units injured nearly 20 workers and detained 40 more at Hepco Industrial Complex in the city of Arak, 281 kilometers west of Tehran. A number of workers were hospitalized, but the number of casualties remains unclear.
Mohammad Taghi Abayei, local deputy director of the Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare department, said, ”The enraged workers closed down the country's main north-south railway line for hours," adding that "the security forces rushed in at 19:00 [local time], and within a minute removed the barricades."
Over the last two years, Hepco workers, who number around 8,000, have repeatedly held rallies to protest against unpaid wages, the ownership of the company and the neglect of pensioners’ rights. This is their second protest rally along Iran’s main north-south railway line. They also blocked the railway line on May 14, 2018, raising black flags around the entrance to the Hepco industrial complex as a symbol of their grievances.
At the time of that protest one of the workers attempted suicide but was saved by his colleagues. “After those clashes, the authorities at last remembered that there is a Hepco,” one of the workers told the media afterwards. “Since then we are more or less being paid and the situation of our insurance is better, but we are still a world away from our better days. When there is no money, life becomes miserable.”
Protests by Hepco workers eventually led to a meeting between local and government officials on May 23, 2018. It was decided that the management of the company would be temporarily passed to the Privatization Organization, part of the ministry of the economy, and that this organization would pay unpaid wages within a week.
Punishing Unpaid Workers
While this ineffective change at the company’s management was taking place, the Iranian judiciary took action against protesting workers. At least 10 workers were summoned by Arak’s prosecutor and were charged with “disrupting public order” and “participation in an illegal gathering.” A judiciary official explained what happened on May 28, 2018 [Persian link]: “At the very least, Hepco workers broke the law by blocking the railway line. For us, blocking the railway is a red line.” Five of the workers who had adhered to the summons were arrested but were released on bail the same day.
But the prosecution of Hepco workers continued. In October 2018, Branch 106 of Arak’s Criminal Court sentenced 15 Hepco workers to between a year and two and a half years in prison and 74 lashes for “disrupting public order” and “instigating workers via the internet to demonstrate and riot.” Some of the sentenced workers had participated in negotiations with the management, representing their coworkers.
On August 23 2019, a group of Hepco workers launched a new round of protests, holding a rally against unpaid wages and working conditions in front of the offices of the city’s representatives to the parliament in the center of Arak.
Speaking about the first two months of the Iranian calendar month of 1398, which started on March 21, Abolfazl Ranjbar, a member of the Islamic Workers’ Council of Hepco Workers in Arak, told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) that “workers have been paid nothing for almost two months and they have received only 70 percent of their wages.”
Ranjbar emphasized the problems the Hepco workers currently face is not only about payment of wages but also the unfulfilled promises made by both provincial officials and the country’s government. “For approximately a year and a half the government has promised workers it would take care of the situation of the company’s stockholders but unfortunately nothing has happened.”
“From the start of the [Iranian] new year, the company didn’t manufacture anything,” he said. “In the last five months the factory has been practically shut down, but they were trying to benefit from the prices of the company’s shares at the stock market by spreading rumors. In their meetings with the workers’ council, the CEO and members of the board of directors have constantly talked about production and productivity but practically nothing has been done.
“The management says that they have traveled to Germany, Iraq, Turkey and so on to open new markets but, considering the high costs of their travels, the question is this: did they get anything for Hepco? Did Hepco get any orders? Nothing has happened for Hepco as far as production goes. We have seen no results from these visits and no contracts have been signed.”
Blaming American Sanctions
Ranjbar rejected the claim that sanctions were responsible for Hepco’s troubles. “In 2018, most of Hepco’s competitors were active and engaged in importing and manufacturing road construction equipment, despite American sanctions on Iran,” he said. “In fact, the sanctions did not make that much of a difference. Perhaps the sanctions made the production process slower and more difficult, but they have never succeeded in stopping the production line. But unfortunately, the management team chosen by the Privatization Organization failed to provide the company with the raw material necessary for the minimum amount of production.”
Hepco is a symbol of Iran’s failed development projects of the 1960s. The company was founded on February 10, 1973, exactly six years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Industrial Development & Renovation Organization of Iran (IDRO) and the four Rezai brothers, members of one of the richest and most powerful families in Iran under the Pahlavi regime, owned the shares in almost equal measures. Last year, IranWire published a detailed report about how this company was founded, how it fared under the Islamic Republic and how it was crippled by corruption, mismanagement, and worsening economic conditions.
The continuing protests by Hepco workers show that even the direct intervention from President Hassan Rouhani has failed to solve the problems of this manufacturing complex. “One of the workers’ demands is to for a CEO for the company to be chosen as soon as possible,” Mahmoud Vaezi, Rouhani’s chief of staff, told reporters on September 9, ignoring other grievances the workers had expressed. “I have submitted a report about this to the president and he has ordered that this must be done as soon as possible. On the Wednesday meeting of the cabinet, it was decided that [Finance Minister Farhad] Dejpasand and other responsible bodies should follow up the matter seriously so that the problems can be solved as quickly as possible. Mr. Dejpasand and a couple of other cabinet ministers with related responsibilities promised that they would introduce a new CEO before next week.”
But the president’s intervention has not only not improved the situation, it seems to have exacerbated it, to the point where the Iranian public has been confronted with fresh images of bloodied and injured workers.
Despite the violent crackdown on Monday, however, Hepco workers continued their protests on Tuesday, September 17.
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