Today, progressives across the world mark the international labor movement’s official holiday. As trade unions celebrate their remarkable conquests with parades, demonstrations, and speeches, their Iranian comrades languished in jail, guilty of having sought similar working conditions from their government. As for those labor activists who are still free, the mere attempt to join street demonstrations on May Day is inviting a ruthless response by the Islamic Republic.
Much like the Soviet Union boasted of being “workers’ paradise,” Iran claims to stand for the “oppressed of the earth.” Yet, much like the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic engages in a great deal of oppression. Iranians suffer on account of their views, their faith, or their ethnicity. They are also targeted by the regime if they seek to organize themselves independently. This applies especially to trade unions, a thorn in the side of the regime and among its most vulnerable victims. Iran’s labor market is stagnant, and it remains relatively competitive by exploiting its workers, who are treated, in effect, as slave labor. Iranian workers often do not get paid. When they do, high inflation significantly erodes the purchasing power of their earnings.
Social legislation permits companies to hire workers on short-term, three-month contracts. Under these conditions, wages are usually below the poverty line, and employers are not obliged to contribute to any social benefits. To avoid giving the social payments, Iranian companies regularly fire workers within the three-month period and then re-hire them. This lamentable state of affairs is compounded by the fact that workers, without independent unions, have no recourse. Their sole means of representation are so-called Islamic unions. These unions, in fact, represent the interests of the regime and its state-owned companies, not the working people.
In the past, workers defied the state through strikes and the establishment of independent unions, much like Solidarity did in Poland in 1980. In 2008, workers struck (in spite of government threats) at the Khodro car factory and at the Haft Tapeh sugar mills. To the Western ear, their demands are far from extravagant. They sought the right to establish independent unions, forbid security forces from storming the plants, halt compulsory overtime, receive benefits linked to productivity, and have their wages linked to the cost of living. They also demanded an end to the iniquitous three-month contract, combined with an end to the practice of running employees through revolving doors to avoid having to make social-welfare payments. In addition, workers sought basic social benefits, including a salary above the poverty line, a reduction of pressures on workers through the expansion of the work force, worker participation in factory committees, and improved measures to protect them from work accidents.
The regime’s response was further repression. Ali Nejati, the leader of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Trade Union, was arrested and kept incommunicado for months. Mansour Osanloo, the leader of the bus drivers’ union, was repeatedly arrested and abused in prison. Jailed on the eve of a delicate eye surgery, he was allowed to go to the hospital after considerable pressure from international organizations but was denied the time needed to recover and immediately sent back to jail. After a prolonged period of detention at Evin, he was transferred, along with a colleague, Ebrahim Madadi, to a common criminals’ ward. They are still there, both being denied basic health care – though Osanloo suffers from a heart condition and Madadi is diabetic. They are frequently held in solitary confinement and denied the right to see their families and their lawyers. Osanloo and Madadi are not the only victims – this week, to discourage May Day demonstrations, the regime rounded up more trade unionists and jailed them as a warning. Their predicament reveals that, even in the field of social justice, repression remains the prevailing theme of the Islamic Revolutionary Republic.
Caring for them should be a foregone conclusion for the European left and America’s labor unions. Promoting their cause should be part of the agenda of those who seek to undermine Iran’s regime and help its fledgling opposition gain strength.
What could be done to help Iran’s unionists?
Though much has been done already, labor unions could seek to further isolate Iran by highlighting the plight of their comrades in international forums like the International Trade Union Federation and its branches. Governments – especially Western governments led by social-democratic parties – should use the International Labor Organization and other international forums to isolate and expel Iran on account of its dismal record. Imprisoned activists such as Osanloo and Madadi should become household names in the struggle for freedom – the European parliament, for example, should consider awarding them with the prestigious Sakharov prize this year.
Iran’s unionists are paying with their freedom, health, and life to demand rights that the Socialist International has considered sacrosanct for over a century. For any decent progressive, this should be a call to action – especially on May 1.