Strikes and protests across Iran: ‘This is slavery’

Teachers went on strike in central Iran’s city of Yazd. Steelworkers and hospital staff walked off the job in the southwest city of Ahvaz. Railway employees protested near Tabriz. And a bus drivers union in Tehran battled the private companies that control many city routes.

These were among the hundreds of recent outbreaks of labor unrest in Iran, an indication of deepening discord over the nation’s economic troubles. Workers are turning not only against their employers but also Iran’s government, piling pressure on leaders who promised but failed to deliver better times in the two years since economic sanctions were lifted in the nuclear deal.

The strain would likely only worsen if President Donald Trump decides to pull the U.S. out of the deal. He has said he would announce a decision by Saturday, and such a move would return sanctions to an Iranian economy already on the ropes.

Prices of eggs, meat and bread are rising more than 10% a year, compounding consumer woes. Unemployment is about 12%, and the Iranian rial has fallen sharply against the dollar, raising prices on imported goods and prompting a central bank intervention in April. Oil prices have risen, bringing a moment of relief, but consumers say they’ve yet to see the benefits.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars in proceeds from the nuclear agreement have gone to Iran’s military involvement in Syria and support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah rather than the national economy, critics of the deal say.

Labor protesters said they were asking only for their due. Standing on a wooden box outside Iran’s Haft Tapeh sugar plant, Esmail Bakhshi, armed with a microphone, exhorted a crowd of striking workers to take over the operation if they weren’t paid several months of back wages. The company which employs about 5,000, grows sugar cane and makes granulated sugar.

“They say they have no money,” he said to applause in January. “We have no money either. But the difference is that we are experts in sugar cane processing, and we will manage the operations ourselves.”

That night, masked men assaulted Mr. Bakhshi as he left the factory before bystanders helped him, union activists said. After four days of strikes at Haft Tapeh in February, authorities arrested more than 30 people, including Mr. Bakhshi. He was arrested again in April. Mr. Bakhshi, who couldn’t be reached for comment, was again freed and back at work, according to co-workers.

Iran’s labor disputes are extending a panoply of protests in the Islamic Republic that stem from social, economic and political strains. In December and January, people poured onto the streets for two weeks of demonstrations, touched off by deposits lost through failed financial institutions. The protests, Iran’s largest in nearly a decade, were quashed by authorities.

Since then, women have posted videos that show them removing mandatory headscarves, a criminal offense. Defrauded depositors still air grievances, and workers have kept up demands.

The simmering anger, as voiced by protesters, is stoked by the belief that a corrupt and politically empowered elite is siphoning off Iran’s wealth.

“The social gap is about to explode,” said Alireza Saghafi-Khorasani, the secretary of a labor-rights group in Iran. “There is no economic plan.”

The government, led by President Hassan Rouhani but presided over by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has had to confront the many grievances. In the sugar industry, imports of the commodity have been periodically banned.

Mr. Khamenei in February said Iran’s enemies—a watchword for the U.S. and Israel, as well as Iranian dissident groups—had provoked the labor unrest.

Labor troubles have proven dangerous to the status quo in the past. By organizing oil strikes before the 1979 Iranian Revolution that slowed energy production to a trickle, Iran’s workers swept away economic supports of the ruling shah and helped ensure the success of the uprising.

Leaders of the new Islamic Republic hobbled the rise of independent labor unions, which were viewed as a potential threat. While Iran has state-sanctioned Islamic labor councils, international labor groups don’t view them as independent of the state. Some leaders of independent unions face arrest.

One evening in March, security forces in Ahvaz showed up at the homes of more than a dozen striking steelworkers and arrested them, according to Radio Farda, a U.S.-funded service that broadcasts Iran news from Prague.

The financial situation of blue-collar Iranians haven’t improved much in the nearly four decades since the revolution. Urban family incomes average around $800 a month, with a minimum wage of around $200 a month.

“Where in the world is a worker whose wage is four times below the poverty line forced by the police to work?” activist Jafar Azimzadeh said in a video posted on the messaging app Telegram. “This is a crime. This is slavery.”

Monthly cash payments for consumers were cut in response to lower oil revenues before the parliament restored them in February, in the wake of protests. Many with jobs, however, remain unpaid.

“We borrow money during times when there is no payment,” said Reza Rakhshan, a union organizer and the head of Haft Tapeh’s sugar cane irrigation department. “My colleagues suffer from diabetes and heart problems and they can’t afford the treatments.”

Strikes have hit firms that, under financial strains, have stopped paying wages and pensions. Some walkouts have been organized against formerly state-run firms that have languished in the hands of private owners. Many company owners are connected with the political and religious establishment, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a military force with a large stakes in the national economy.

The Haft Tapeh factory, which was privatized in 2015, has been unprofitable since sugar import tariffs were cut to around 20% from above 140% in 2005. The new owners said they were working to stabilize the business after facing $100 million in accumulated losses when they took over.

With independent labor union activity banned, workers struggle to agree on demands and the tactics to achieve them. At Haft Tapeh, workers allied with Mr. Rakhshan, the union organizer, accuse Mr. Bakhshi, the arrested worker, of a confrontational, politicized approach that draws security forces instead of solving underlying problems

“He went head on and then his tire got flat,” Mr. Rakhshan said of Mr. Bakhshi, suggesting that too strong a confrontation can backfire.

The worker arrests typically trigger more protests and strikes, with additional demands for the release of jailed workers.

“In other countries workers have paid a high price for their rights—they didn’t come free and easy,” Mr. Rakhshan said. “We will continue to fight, too, using strikes, protests, petitions, social networks and the internet.”

Workers at Haft Tapeh declined to protest on May Day last week because they didn’t want to jeopardize their demands for back pay. Iranian media reported six people were arrested at gatherings across the country after the authorities, in a break from tradition, refused to give permits required for May Day demonstrations.

The sugar company’s financial problems were straining workers, said Omid Asadbeigi, whose family owns the operation, but there was little he could do.

“I can’t pay them 40 million rials [$952] instead of 10 million rials [$238] and keep the company running,” Mr. Asadbeigi said. “I am also under pressure.”

Pictures of Qasem Soleimani, who leads the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, were displayed on a table and a book shelf in Mr. Asadbeigi’s office. He said the military group wasn’t involved in the business. He had the pictures, he said, because he was a fan of the military commander.

Source » wsj

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