By INU Staff
INU - On Tuesday, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported that protests on Sunday at the Ahwaz Steel National Industrial Group involved the participation of approximately 500 workers. That day marked the fourth consecutive day of protests at the site, where workers are reportedly owed months of back pay. Lengthy periods of non-payment are a common problem among Iranian businesses, many of which are owned in whole or in part by the state or by state-linked affiliates and groups like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Iran-HRM report also noted that Sunday’s demonstrations was subject to predictable attempts by state security forces to suppress and disperse the protesters. Witnesses on the scene reported that a number of workers had been injured after being attacked by police, in a repeat of clashes that have taken place against the backdrop of numerous labor rights demonstrations over the past several months.
Beginning in May and proceeding for more than two weeks, a coordinated strike by truck drivers virtually shut down the Iranian transportation industry for a time. This protest also met with a violent response from security forces, but not before participants undertook to peacefully but directly confront regime authorities.
When IRGC-owned companies hired scabs to break the strike, protesters responded by obstructing their vehicles and forcing them to unload goods. Such bold measures may come as a surprise to many observers, considering that the coordination of labor movements has traditionally been impeded by the illegality of formal unions, while the IRGC has repeatedly demonstrated its strength in the midst of crackdowns on protests and other forms of dissent.
It was largely by virtue of the IRGC’s response that nationwide protests in December and January – initially motivated by public outrage over an economic crisis – ended with 8,000 arrests and 50 protesters shot dead. But despite this repression, opponents of the Iranian regime were quick to predict that the people’s outrage would not be contained, and the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi declared that the following year “can and must be turned into a year full of uprisings.”
The coalition that Mrs. Rajavi heads, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has repeatedly cited ongoing labor protests and other demonstrations as evidence that her prediction was correct and that the Iranian people are acting in accordance with it. This message is underscored by the apparent overlap between specific demonstrations like those calling for the payment of outstanding wages and the more general message that characterized the December-to-January uprising, in which participants chanted “death to the dictator” and “death to [President] Rouhani.”
Regime officials were unusually quick to attribute these and other slogans to organized Resistance groups. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei first declared in a speech on January 9 that the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran had “planned for months” to bring about the mass uprising. The PMOI is the leading constituent group of the NCRI, and has been an advocate of regime change since the years immediately following the establishment of the Islamic Republic.
The regime’s anxiety about the growth of such movements and the expansion of their activities has been on display at various times in the midst of the most recent protests. Iran-HRM noted in a report last Friday that at least one Iranian Member of Parliament attempted to downplay the ultimately violent suppression of the truckers’ strike by saying that the various arrests associated with that movement were not arrests of striking worker but rather of activists who had piggybacked off of the strike in order to voice their opposition to the regime.
But as the January uprising demonstrated, many Iranians, including farmers and blue collar workers who have traditionally been political inactive, have recently opted to make it clear that they attribute many of their hardships, in the workplace and in society at large, to the essential nature of the ruling authorities. This suggests that it is not as difficult to separate labor protesters from anti-government protesters as the regime authorities have been implying, even if they sincerely believe that they have been targeting one group and not the other. But this sincerity is also cast into doubt by accounts of the regime’s reaction to other protests in recent days and weeks.
As an example, the CHRI reported last week that 15 protesters had been arrested on May 29, out of about 200 who had gathered outside of the governor’s office in the province of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad to protest government plans to divert water, which are expected to greatly harm the livelihood of local farmers while also exacerbating the effects of an ongoing drought. The 15 arrestees in the case had been selected to represent the larger group in talks with local authorities, but those talks were cancelled at the last moment and the negotiators were instead ordered arrested upon their arrival.
This incident has naturally been a source of particular outrage among defenders of workers’ rights, with one Iranian journalist writing: “Even primitive tribes respected the enemy’s representatives and believed that violating that trust was dishonorable.” But of course the broader pattern of arrests and attacks on protesters is itself indicative of the systematic obstruction of free speech and free assembly. This represents a violation not only of international norms but also of the laws of the Islamic Republic.
Another report by CHRI quotes Article 27 of the Iranian Constitution as saying, “Public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.” Yet that report also notes that worker protests at the Heavy Equipment Production Company (Hepco) in the city of Arak were deemed “illegal gatherings,” leading to 10 participants being charged with the crime of “disturbing public order.” Those defendants now face up to five years in prison, and there is a strong possibility that others may join them, as workers continue to demand the payment of three months’ worth of back wages.
One Hepco strike began on May 14 and ended two days later after managers offered a deal. But when they failed to make any payment in line with that agreement, another strike was initiated on May 21. This sort of back-and-forth is part of a much larger pattern involving the company, which Human Rights activists describe as a case study in Tehran’s utter failure to manage its own program of industrial privatization.
The IranWire article in question traces the history of Hepco in substantial detail, highlighting the recurrent non-payment of worker salaries to illustrate how the government and its affiliates in the private sector have failed to take action to rectify a well-known problem. This company, like many others, has reportedly seen declining revenues over the years as a result of a combination of persistent factors, including corruption, mismanagement, and the Iranian regime’s failure to address the crises facing the national economy as a whole.
Against the backdrop of those crises the move toward privatization, beginning in the mid-2000s, resulted in institutions like the Revolutionary Guard enriching themselves on the backs of ordinary workers. According to IranWire, “those in the ‘private sector’ who did benefit from the move were often accused of corrupt and sweetheart deals and having close links with the country’s most powerful elite.” And to the extent that these trends laid the groundwork for the current labor protests, they also lend credence to message of anti-government protests: that the Iranian people’s hardships are inextricably linked to the overall behavior of the clerical regime.
Meanwhile, another report arguably lends support to the argument that a wholesale change of government may be necessary in order to facilitate a change in those behaviors. That report, focused on certain conditions leading up to recent protests and clashes with security forces in the city of Kazerun, points out that researchers affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard had identified threats to the region’s stability at least three years earlier.
Despite this fact, it appears that nothing was done to counteract those conditions, just as nothing has been done to diminish the gap in wealth and incomes between well-connected Iranian elites and the ordinary Iranian people who have been driving so many protests since the end of last year.