A leaked letter signed by Iran’s Vice President for Legal Affairs addressed to the Social Security Organization has found its way onto social media, and disturbed the sleep of workers up and down the country.
The letter, which is dated January 27, 2021 and signed by Pejman Mohammadi, a coordination and planning deputy at the body’s Department of Legal Affairs, appears to dismantle years of built-up expectations for the basic treatment of experienced employees.
It states that from March 2021 onward, any employer in Iran can reconsider any employee, regardless of his or her background, record and consecutive years of experience, as a novice worker. He or she can be offered a new contract based on the minimum wage and benefits without the standard wage increase, and without taking into account their years of employment.
Pejman Mohammadi then reacted to workers' protests that erupted on Tuesday, February 9, saying that the letter was not a hard-and-fast rule and was written only to help the Social Security Organization amend its software for calculating premiums and years of service. But labor activists think otherwise.
Labor activists believe that the letter, which was signed by the Vice President for Legal Affairs and addressed to the Social Security Organization, deliberately sidelines workers' rights and is contrary to the general spirit of Iran’s labor laws. They also say the stipulations it refers to should be annulled as soon as possible.
Ali Khodaei, a member of the Supreme Labor Council, believes that with these measures the government is testing workers' tolerance threshold. "The workers are not silent,” he told ILNA news agency, “and if the letter is not retracted as soon as possible, they can expect a serious reaction.”
Long-Serving Workers Tested to the Limit
Inflation and the cost of basic goods are not taken into account when the government is determining workers' wages. For this reason, while the poverty line in Iran is currently estimated at about 12 million tomans, minimum wage is 2.6 million tomans. This is likely to be increased to a maximum of around 3 million tomans in 2021, still far short of what employees need to survive and meet their needs.
Abdol Sheibani, a vegetable oil factory worker in Khuzestan, told IranWire that despite 23 years of experience, he is still only receiving a salary of less than three million tomans. He and his children live in absolute poverty and can envisage no future for themselves.
"In a time when there is no fair relationship between the worker and the employer,” he said, “if it were not for the Social Security Organization's requirement to increase the annual minimum wage, the employers would have starved us by now. The President and the ombudsman know that the letter is utterly cruel and inhumane.”
Delayed wages and payment arrears, as well as the general lack of job security and the consequences of badly-planned privatizations, have put further pressure on the working community in recent years.
"Why doesn’t the Deputy Minister just order the mass suicide of workers?” Sheibani said. “We’ve faced inflation of several hundred percent and have extremely unfair wages. But according to this letter, we are to be denied the same percentage increase in annual income. Do they not see that the workers are hungry?"
No Real Support from Unions in Hock to Government
Sattar Rahmani, an activist and member of the International Union for the Protection of Iranian Workers, told IranWire that he believed the letter would not be implemented, but that it would be used to give the employer an excuse to put maximum pressure on employees.
“They are drawing people’s attention to this letter in order to impose their desired figures on workers in 2021,” he said. “In spite of inflation, they want to impose a cap of something close to 25 percent on the increase to the minimum wage in the coming years. According to Article 41 of the Labor Law, wages must increase according to the general inflation rate in addition that of the household subsistence basket."
Moreover, he added, laborers in Iran have no real recourse to an organized body that will come to their defense. "Bargaining over workers' wages should be undertaken by impartial representatives of the government, the employer and the workers' representatives. But in Iran, the government itself is the largest employer, and the smaller ones are companies that are dependent on the government. Official workers' representatives, from the Workers' House and the Supreme Labor Council to the Workers' Union and the Islamic Workers' Council, are all affiliated with the regime and are therefore not real representatives. In reality they take money from the government and act as the baton of the Islamic Republic on workers' heads."
"If independent unions existed, they could exert relative control over the affairs of the workers and, in a way, bring about a balance of power. In post-revolutionary Iran, independent workers' councils were formed in many factories and briefly challenged the fledgling regime. But in a short time, all of them were crushed by the government, and the independent councils were dissolved and replaced by Islamic councils."
Riding Roughshod Over Labor Laws
Mehri Jafari, a lawyer and labor rights activist, told IranWire that the vice president's letter was contrary to the spirit of the national labor law and also worked in the employer's favor by disrupting the employer-employee relationship.
“The law intends to restrict the employer's hand in issuing short-term contracts, and in extending the contract via a new, basic contract. It aims to prevent the employer from manipulating wages and changing working conditions to the detriment of the worker. That is why labor laws are passed in all countries."
She believes that although labor law in Iran has huge gaps in terms of the protection of workers' rights, this particular case is in stark contrast to the spirit of the labor law in general and to some of its specific provisions. “The provisions state that the continuation of a worker's employment, if there is a need for the job, means the continuation of the contract. Even if the contract between the worker and the employer has a limited duration but is to be extended for the following year, it will not be considered a new contract. Considering it as new is a misinterpretation of the law and contrary to both the collective inference and the basic rights of the worker."
"How can a worker who has worked hard for years, accumulated knowledge and gained experience, be placed on the payroll as if he has just started, with the lowest level of experience? Nowhere in the world can you use a worker like a slave in this way.
"The government seems to be paying attention to its own budget instead of representing the people. It ignores the salaries of all employees covered by the Social Security Organization so that it can easily shrink their contracts and save up enough funds for itself. That is, a government that is supposed to represent workers' rights is to their detriment and against them."
Mehri Jafari looks to the other side of the story: one that shows that wanton disregard for people’s lives and livelihoods will in turn adversely affect the regime. "You cannot, with a few thoughtless letters, destabilize the lives of a large part of society, ignore their experiences, and sit and watch to see what painful things happen to them, because the production and service cycle must have two balanced ends.
"Lawyers, public figures, domestic organizations and even international labor organizations must deal decisively with letters and guidelines such as these, and prevent such decisions from being carried out."