For the first time in many years, writes Behrouz Mina, Iranian construction workers were allowed to mark Labor Day, May 1, with a peaceful rally to demand higher pay and better working conditions. So why did so many in the crowd chose to lash out at Afghan workers?

Iranian workers celebrated May 1 with much more enthusiasm and festivities than in previous years. For the first time in eight years, they were allowed to hold a peaceful demonstration, and to listen to their leaders and issue a declaration of their demands. However, the day and associated ceremonies were marred by slogans and protests against Afghan workers in Iran, particularly those working in the construction industry.

This response had less to do with economics and more to do with next year’s parliamentarian elections. The current administration, just like the former one,  blames the country’s economic situation on immigrants in order to cover up its own failings.

May 1 is a unique day in Iran – there are only a few occasions that connect both pre- and post-revolutionary Iran. Leftie intellectuals speak of social justice and remember the history of class struggle in Iran. Workers use the day to speak of their struggles and demands, which have changed very little over the past decade. This year, workers’ requests were different than before. Five thousand workers from different syndicates and unions gathered in Palestine Square near the university in the center of Tehran to attend a ceremony organized by Workers’ House, the official workers’ union of Iran. It is often portrayed as being reformist but it is, in reality, it is affiliated to the political establishment. This means every observer is inclined to take the group’s messages and banners more seriously than those of other gatherings.

Workers carried several of these banners. Some of them demanded an end to child labor in Iran, others for equal pay and pensions for part-time and short-term workers. Some workers expressed their loyalty for the Minister of Labor, Ali Rabiee, while many opposed a change in the Labor Code and others called for higher wages. Although many of these demands are much the same as workers’ demands anywhere in the world, banners carried by the the Construction Workers’ Union stood out: “Employers Have Some Dignity – Don’t Hire Afghans,” one of them read. In this way, Iran’s Workers' House turned the international celebration of laborers and the working classes into an occasion to take a stand against immigrant workers. This should have made some of Iran’s early socialists and communists turn in their graves. It certainly sparked an angry reaction from many people inside Iran, and attracted global attention.

Criticism of Afghan workers in Iran’s construction industry is nothing new — Iranian construction workers have never taken kindly to competition. But Alireza Mahjoub, a Member of Parliament and the General Secretary of Workers’ House for the past 24 years, told workers, “Foreign employment in construction is crucial to the livelihood of Iranian construction workers. This vulnerable group needs income in order to make ends meet.” On May 1, Mr Mahjoub spoke on behalf of Iranian workers, so many news agencies reported his speech as being the position of Iranian workers. But when he has discussed the topic before, he has blamed Afghan workers for rising unemployment among Iranian workers.

Mr Mahjoub and several other officials are deemed by many to be regime-appointed representatives for workers, not elected ones. Yet to view him as such fails to reflect the true nature of his position.

Both Mahjoub’s speech and the controversial banners roused a fierce reaction across the political spectrum. Some activists are now accusing the Workers’ House of fascist sentiments, while some union members expressed the view that blaming Afghan workers for the situation merely avoids addressing the true demands of Iranian workers. Babak, an activist, said “It’s divide and conquer — the government is pitting Iranian and Afghan workers against one another to avoid accountability.” Some observers pointed out that former populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the deportation of Afghan workers a campaign promise in order to win a parliamentarian election; some say the Workers’ House is attempting to pre-empt the campaign for Hassan Rouhani, who could promise the same thing.

No exact data is available on the number of Afghan workers in Iran, though it is thought that there are as many as two million Afghans living in the country. Afghan refugees fled war and violence to live on the outskirts of urban communities in Iran. Many are unskilled and seek out low paid construction jobs as a means of survival.

On the whole, Afghans are competing for jobs in sectors that do not have high unemployment rates. The most vulnerable groups in Iran are women — 39 percent are unemployed; young men — 18 percent unemployed; and college graduates — 50 percent unemployed. None of these groups look for construction jobs when looking for work, and are therefore not in competition with Afghan workers. Only one section of the Iranian labor force – construction workers — object to the presence of Afghan workers in Iran.

Speaking about the May 1 event in Tehran to the Jameh e Baaz daily newspaper in Kabul, Afghan journalist Khalil Pezhvak said, “Iranian workers' reactions are understandable. They’re unemployed. Real life is not ideal.” But he invited Iranian workers to ask themselves why Iranian employers and contractors hire Afghan workers. “An Afghan worker is ready to do the utmost for the very least in order to survive. Will an Iranian worker work without insurance in the most unbearable conditions?”

The truth is that Iranian workers will not. And, in an economy plagued by corruption and inflation, Iranian employers and contractors — including military organizations like the Revolutionary Guards — hire the most inexpensive workers available in order to survive and earn a profit. This labor, as it turns out, is carried out by Afghans and illegal immigrants.

Iranian employers do not want to hire Afghan workers. For them, it is an economic choice, and sometimes a necessary one. And, therefore, when Iranian politicians turn the dilemma into a campaign issue, they are hoping to blame the economic crisis on a group, rather than offer a solution. It is a tactic adopted by populists in the hope it will aggravate the masses and gain their support. This way, they will have a scapegoat in the future when they need one.

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