Workers at the Haft-Tappeh Sugar Factory staged a fresh protest in front of the Khuzestan governor’s office on Saturday, October 9. The latest round of strike action began a fortnight ago, with workers this time insisting they will down tools for as long as it takes for their demands to be met.
Hundreds of workers amassed in the street outside the building in Ahvaz, chanting: “Revolutionary government? Just empty slogans”. The group then marched through the streets of the city’s Amaniyeh district. Members announced that if the issues remain unaddressed, they would march on the president’s office in Tehran.
What do the Haft-Tappeh Protesters Want?
Haft-Tappeh was founded in the 1960s in Shush, Khuzestan by Abolhassan Ebtehaj, the first head of the Iranian Planning and Budget Organization. Ebtahaj saw Khuzestan as a special area for development and chapter 16 of his memoirs is entirely devoted to this attempt.
The company was disastrously privatized via a back-room deal in 2016. Haft-Tappeh workers have held intermittent strikes since late 2018 after the sale put both the business and their wages in jeopardy. The now-disgraced CEO, Omid Asadbeigi, last year became one of the main defendants in a criminal case over the government’s allocation of cheap foreign currency to business owners in Iran. Asadbeigi was accused of currency smuggling along with 20 others, and in September this year, after a total of 13 court hearings from May to July 2020, the court finally decided to expropriate Haft-Tappeh from the factory owners by annulling the original sale.
To an extent the criinal case vindicated the workers. They had long held that both the privatization deal and Haft Tappeh’s new managers were corrupt. Now its shareholders were being tried for participating in the formation of an organized network to disrupt the Iranian financial system. Strangely enough, Asadbeigi – who always appeared in court in a suit – had the same defense lawyer as had worked for president Hassan Rouhani’s brother, Hossein Fereydoun, in the latter’s own corruption case.
The protests had been brutally suppressed by the Iranian authorities, with many labor and civil activists arrested, tortured and prosecuted for supporting the cause. Many of them including ex-employee Esmaeil Bakhshi and activists Sepideh Gholian, Amir Amirgholi, Amir Hossein Mohammadi-Fard, Sanaz Allahyari and Asal Mohammadi are still behind bars on trumped-up charges today.
Problems at the factory persisted after the arrest of Asadbeigi, who faced no criminal reprisal for the worker abuses. Employees are demanding the back-payment of months of wages, insurance premiums and other bonuses. They are also calling for the removal of all Haft-Tappeh’s other private sector bosses, and emphasize that only a workers’ collective has the requisite skills and principles to run the factory responsibly.
Those in Ahvaz on Saturday also said they wanted clarification on the original transfer of the company in 2016: namely the cost, how it came about and who was involved. They also demanded urgent repairs and maintenance be carried out to the complex, and called for the extension of seasonal contracts.
One of the core demands still outstanding is the issue of dismissal of Asadbeigi, who is still technically CEO. He and business partner Mehrdad Rostami, who was also charged in the foreign currency case, bought 100 percent of the shares of the firm in 2016 while also the owners of Zeus Holdings and Ariak Electric. Asadbeigi is also accused of having used sporting investments to launder money, and of paying a $200,000 dollar bribe to the now ex-governor of Khuzestan, Gholamreza Shariati.
In July 2020, a picture supposedly of Asadbeigi was published that seemed to show him involved in an attack on plainclothes officers at Mir Hossein Mousani’s headquarters in Qeytarieh, Tehran around the time of the disputed tenth presidential election. Asadbeigi denied having had a role in the attack.