On June 19, Iranian workers at Farab Company’s Bidkhoon Power Plant project in the southern province of Bushehr downed tools and left the power plant en masse. The walkout came as part of nationwide strike action called by the Council for Organizing Protests of Contract Oil Workers: the biggest wave of industrial action to affect the country's petroleum industry in the past 40 years.
In the past week more than 20,000 full-time, temporary and contract workers for the Oil Ministry have taken part in the strike. Their demands include an increase in wages and the implementation and the adoption of the so-called “20/10” plan: 10 days off for every 20 days of work. The union has announced that they will not return to work unless their demands are met.
The Fire Reignited
This new strike is a continuation of widespread protests in 2020 that involved some 10,000 oil workers demanding better job security, an end to so-called “blank contracts”, salary hikes and the back-payment of wage arrears, as well as improvements to dormitories and health facilities and wage-based insurance payments.
The workers never received satisfactory answers to their demands, coming as they did in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic in Iran. So on June 20, 2021, the Council issued a fresh statement announcing that workers at oil refineries and power plants had “resumed” industrial action. Employees will both refuse to work and take part in rallies outside their workplaces to re-focus attention on the problem.
Staff have since posted videos online of people walking out of their workplaces all over Iran, holding up banners bearing the slogan “We will not forgo our rights”.
The Iranian Oil Ministry’s Reach
The Oil Ministry of Iran has a monopoly on the country’s oil, gas and petrochemical industries. Aside from having 64,000 full-time employees on the payroll, it currently has more than 1m contract workers on its books, including 850,000 on scope-specific contracts, 34,000 on temporary contracts and 120,000 on project-based contracts.
For the past few days, contract workers at Kharg Island’s offshore oil terminal in the Persian Gulf have also been on hunger strike. The laborers have and have refused to load oil tankers in a bid to see their demands met. But the Oil Ministry has claimed that these are “private-sector” contractors and, therefore, their complaints do not fall within its purview.
One Persian Gulf Oil Worker’s Story
The port of Asaluyeh overlooks the South Pars/North Dome Gas-Condensate field in the Persian Gulf, the world's largest natural gas field. A gas repairman at Asaluyeh, who asked not to be named , told IranWire he shared the grievances of his striking colleagues.
“I’m full-time and on the refinery’s permanent roster,” he said, “but I’m not officially an employee [of the Oil Ministry]. The contractor who wins the bid for repair work draws up a contract with us for the duration of the project. Afterwards they leave the refinery and then we take on another contract with the next one.
“We’re paid the same daily rate as day laborers and seasonal workers hired for ‘overhaul’, meaning annual repairs. A mechanics’ foreman receives the same daily wage as a full-time worker, plus food and board.
“The second group of day laborers are called ‘volume workers’; they do service and construction jobs. They receive the lowest wages and just one meal a day. The difference between my pay as a master repairman considered a contractor, and the lowest wage of an ‘official’ worker, is at least 20 million tomans [US $4,858]. In addition, ‘official’ employees can fly for free when they go on leave and return to work – but not us.”
But, he adds, the Oil Ministry’s discrimination between “official” employees and contract workers does not stop here: “’Official’ workers enjoy self-service meals of the highest and healthiest quality, and have the most diverse selection of desserts, beverages and seasonal fruits. But the contract laborers’ meals come from the lowest-quality and the most polluted kitchens in Asaluyeh or Kangan [another port in Bushehr province]. There is no dessert, the beverages and fruit are the cheapest you can find in the market, and there are no health and safety inspections, even now during the coronavirus pandemic. I’d better not say anything about the sorry state of the dormitories and rest areas for contract workers.”
What Are “Volume Contracts”?
Fouad Kaykhosravi, a board member of the Free Union of Iranian Workers (FUIW), explained to IranWire how the “volume contracts” work – or rather, how they do not.
“Article 35 of the Iranian Labor Code implicitly talks about volume contracts, but there is no specific provision for such contracts in Iran’s labor law,” he says. “It’s a trick by employers to bypass laws and regulations.
“Of course, there are regulations beyond the labor laws that have also been passed to legitimize this practice. The employer signs an agreement with the contractor for a certain ‘volume’ of work and the contractor has the obligation to complete the specified amount, but their treatment is at the discretion of the contractor – even if it violates the terms of the contract.”
The Iranian Jobs Classifications Act
Kaykhosravi further explains how the Jobs Classification Act works in the context of Iran’s oil industry: “Each workplace hires its personnel based on their level of education, expertise and experience for specific job categories.
“The employees receive salaries and benefits and work under conditions that depend on the category, or job group. In the specific case of contract workers in petroleum and related industries in special economic zones [which have the authority to override national labor laws] the situation is not as it is elsewhere. It means contractors can easily use legal and pseudo-legal loopholes to disregard labor laws, specifically the requirement for an annual increase in salaries and the implementation of the Jobs Classification Act.”
Wage Discrimination in Iran’s Oil Industry
“Trade relations within the petroleum industry’s contractor companies are very complicated,” Kaykhosravi adds. “Under normal conditions, the contractor must pay the worker the wage it has told the employer it will pay in the contract.
“But in this sector, we observe clear inequalities. At Tehran Oil Refinery, for instance, a contractor who recently laid off 700 workers had a contract with the employer that specified it would pay each ‘overhaul’ technical worker 500,000 tomans ($122). But in its own internal contracts with the workers, it paid them between 150,000 and 250,000 tomans ($36 to $61): meaning it pocketed more than 50 percent of the wage the original employer was paying for each such worker. This is naked theft.”
But, he added: “This double exploitation of contract workers compared to those workers directly hired by employers is not only the result of contracted firms’ greed. It has its roots in employers’ long-term attitude toward lower wages, and even in the decisions taken by legislative bodies. For years employers have tried to pull labor relations out of the existing legal framework.”
With Iran now in severe economic crisis, there has been some recognition that the situation is becoming intolerable. Sporadic efforts to amend the Labor Law – specifically, Verdict 179 of Iran’s Court of Administrative Justice, which allows employers to hire workers on temporary contracts for permanent jobs – have been made, while questions are being raised about why special economic zones are seemingly exempt from the law.
Striking workers have also echoed these frustrations. One of the Council’s demands ahead of the strike was the removal of arbitrary private-sector contractors and “making temporary labor contracts permanent”.
Wages at Front and Center of Iran Oil and Gas Strikes
The contract discrepancies aside, Iran’s striking workers are also demanding an increase in wages across the board. They want the base rate to be set at a little over 12 million tomans ($2,915) regardless of their situation, in line with the stipulations of the Job Classification Act.
“Were these demands met,” Kaykhosravi says, “not only would the salary discrepancies between ‘official’ and unofficial workers in the same tier disappear, but by removing contractors and repealing temporary contracts for permanent jobs, some level of justice for workers across the country would be secured.
“The ruling establishment in Iran – regardless of the government of the day – not only has no interest in improving working conditions and workers’ livelihoods, but uses its power to exploit them more and more. This everlasting policy stance does nothing but chip away at earnings through acts such as wage freezes, setting wages in special economic zones and hiring workers through temporary contracts.”
Whenever workers in Iran have succeeded in securing better wages and benefits, Kaykhosravi notes, it has been through unified industrial action. This nationwide strike, he hopes, will be one such case. But the odds are stacked against them: “Organized labor is something the ruling establishment opposes with all its might.”
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