By Mahmoud Hakamian
With unemployment and an economy on the verge of collapse in Iran, working as a border porter or “kolbar” has become an important means of supporting a family in Iran’s western cities that border Iraq and Turkey.
Unemployment rates have reached as high as 40% among the youth In Kurdistan province, and many young people have turned to this occupation. However, it is not only young people.
“People are forced to work as porters. The people in the border regions lack a productive economy and factories. There are no facilities. Therefore, they are forced to work as porters,” Mikael Sedighi, the head of the Construction Workers’ Association in Marivan and Sarvabad said in comments to state-run ILNA News Agency. He added, “I know of women in border villages that have resorted to porter work. Women are paid less because they cannot carry as much as men. Porters get paid depending on the weight they carry,” Sedighi said adding that he knew of women who worked as porters for 10,000 tomans (around $2).
The number of porters increases in winter months as it is “unemployment season” for construction workers.“A few months of unemployment for a construction worker with a family who does not enjoy services such as unemployment insurance, leaves no other option than to work as a porters in the cold and difficult conditions of the mountains,” Sedighi said.
An Iranian running champion has been forced to work as a porter to make ends meet. State media recently published a report on the plight of Taha Ghafari, who won second place in the Asian Games in Japan and holds several titles at the national level.
Ghafari braves the risks involved in being porter to make just 160,000 tomans (around $38) for each trip. He says, “The conditions are terrible, and I do this to make a living. I carry goods such as clothing five hours a day and get 160,000 tomans for it. Being a porter is very difficult and people die doing it. Sometimes you are 2,500-meters high (in the mountains) while carrying goods. It’s unimaginable how difficult it is,”
The Head of the Coordination Center of Islamic Labor Councils in Kurdistan, Shaker Ibrahimi, explained the negative effect that the currency fluctuation has on porters. He said that the livelihood of porters had taken a downward turn because, “Porters do not carry goods for themselves and are only middlemen. This means they bring the goods for third parties and receive money.”
He added, “When the currency rate increases, the goods that they carry no longer has any buyers. In other words, there are no customers for foreign goods. Instead they carry the goods from one border to another. Food and clothing goes from Iran to Iraq. People from Iraqi Kurdistan come to Iran’s border towns and buy goods and either sell them in Iraq or use it for personal consumption.”
According to the law in Iran, porters are smugglers and therefore border guards may open fire on them, even kill them. At recent case was 17-year-old Vahid Dolatkhah, who died on August 21st, near the border with Turkey due to an “unnatural accident,” according to ILNA reports. However, human rights sources say that Dolatkhah was shot in the chest and stomach by Iranian border guards while carrying smuggled cigarettes.
In fact, in past years, hundreds of porters have been killed or injured according to reports by rights groups. Some have been shot by security forces and border guards, and others have died in natural disasters like falling off mountains, or from land mines that remain from the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.
As well, human rights sources also say that in the past month, 15 porters were sentenced to prison. They were convicted of “carrying smuggled goods” by the Sardasht Revolutionary Court, and given prison sentences.