Iranian sugar workers struggle, solidarity needed

Issue 

Workers in Iran face massive repression when attempting to organise to defend their rights.

The Islamic Republic of Iran forbids the organisation of independent trade unions and relentlessly pursues those who attempt to organise. The regime also persecutes strikers, with
security forces frequently attacking striking workers.

Nonetheless, Iranian workers continue to organise and campaign for their rights. One recent struggle is the fight of the Haft Tapeh sugar refinery workers from the southern city of Shush, who have been campaigning for justice from their employer since September last year.

The 5000 Haft Tapeh sugar workers began their struggle demanding the payment of late wages. Between 2005 and 2007, the workers went on strike 16 times in pursuit of their claims, according to the London-based Iranian Workers' Solidarity Network (IWSN). The September 30, 2007 strike lasted for three weeks and won minor concessions from management, including the payment of one month's wages.

In early November, the Iranian government arrested and detained two of the organisers of the strike, Ghorban Alipour and Mohammad Heydari Mehr, and refused to release them on bail, despite the posting of the US$50,000 security for each.

In May, the dispute again erupted, with the workers' demands escalating from the purely economic to demands that the management of the state-owned factory be sacked, along with the security chief of the company, who has a direct role in intimidating the workers.

Workers went on strike on May 6 and on May 10 staged mass protest outside the office of the governor general for Khuzestan province, of over 5000 people.

Protests continued, despite intimidation of the workers by state security. By May 17, a further mass protest organised by the workers attracted 10,000 people and marched from the governor general's office to the city centre. The protest was joined by local shop keepers and others, despite attacks by police using clubs and tear gas. According to reports published by IWSN, it was the largest demonstration ever seen in Shush.

On May 20, the Iranian state mobilised against the Haft Tapeh workers, effectively imposing martial law on Shush, by bussing in units of special guards from the cities of Khoramabad, Ahvaz and Dezful. According to IWSN, the special guards blocked roads to the city and arrested any workers attempting to enter it.

Despite the intimidation, the workers again demonstrated outside the governor general's office on May 26, however, chanting "Incompetent Governor, resign, resign", "Police force, shame, shame", "Monthly pay is our absolute right",
"A livelihood and a life are our absolute right" and "The workers are prepared to die but won't accept hardship". At least 12 workers were arrested by security forces.

On June 7, the recently formed Sydney-based Solidarity Committee with Iranian Workers held a forum aimed at building solidarity with the Haft Tapeh workers at the Iranian Community Library in Harris Park. The forum featured a phone hook-up with Bina Darebzand, a spokesperson in Tehran for the Consistency Committee for the Establishment of Free Workers' Organisations, who gave a presentation on the workers' struggle.

Darebzand called for international solidarity with the Haft Tapeh workers and pointed out that the situation of all workers had been made worse by the Iranian regime's embrace of neoliberal policies after the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988. For sugar workers in particular, the decision to drop the tariff imposed on sugar from 120% to 4% has devastated the industry.

The Iranian regime has stockpiled enough sugar for three years of national consumption, which it is using to attempt to wear-down the Haft Tapeh workers and significantly down-size the plant. Despite intimidation, the workers are continuing their struggle.

The IWSN is calling for a campaign of letter-writing to expose the abuse of the Haft Tapeh workers. They have drafted a model letter, which may be sent to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to help build international pressure. The letter can be downloaded at http://www.iwsn.org.

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