Iranian workers' protests confront a regime in crisis

Issue 
National steel industry workers in Ahvaz, Iran.

Protests are continuing throughout Iran by teachers, nurses, labourers, retirees, oil industry workers, bazaar traders and shopkeepers, truck drivers, farmers, the unemployed, students, and other sectors, writes Minna Langeberg.

The current wave of protests continue those from December, which were brutally suppressed by the regime. They signal the deep crisis of legitimacy of the regime, as expressed by one of the most enduring slogans that emerged, “Fundamentalists, reformists, the game is over”.

The main slogan of the current protests is “Bread. Work. Freedom”. They are sporadic, self-organised, fragmented and generally small in size — but more or less continuous. They are about starvation wages, slavery-like working conditions, unemployment, inflation, currency devaluation, collapsed fraudulent financial schemes that have eaten up retirees’ savings and systematic corruption.

They are not merely about economic conditions, but almost every aspect of life in Iran. Although US sanctions have worsened the economic situation, they are not the cause: the cause is a religious fascist regime in a deep crisis of legitimacy.

The regime is in deep crisis on all fronts — economic, social, political, cultural and international. It can neither continue to rule through “hegemonic” consent, nor can it continue to use sheer repression indefinitely.

Neoliberalism

Neoliberal policies of “structural adjustment” were adopted by various administrations at the end of Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). The consequences of neoliberalism in the past three decades have been disastrous: unemployment, a huge reserve army of labour, an underclass and working poor, the growth of precarious work, shanty towns, closures of factories and rise of a kleptocracy. Overall the result has been the socialisation of poverty. 

In November, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that Iran’s inflation rate will rise to 40% by end of this year and Iran’s economy will contract by 3.6%, partly aided by US sanctions, devaluation of the currency and a fall in oil production and exports. According to the Statistical Centre of Iran, the official inflation rate was 18% for the 12-month period ending in December. Some economists estimate the real inflation rate to be 100%.

The national minimum wage in Iran is determined by the Supreme Labour Council and reviewed annually. Reports indicate that the minimum wage is so low that it covers around 30% of the living costs of a worker and their family. In other words, labour power can barely reproduce itself.

There are now plans to dismantle the minimum wage system. However, many of the workers whose terms and conditions are going to be further deregulated as a result are already on starvation wages.

Officially, unemployment is above 12%, but it is more likely to be between 25% and 30%. In some cities and regions, 60% of the population is unemployed. Six million workers are estimated to be engaged in the “informal economy”, where they lack insurance protection.

Most of informal sector workers are considered “self-employed” but, in fact, they are “wage hunters and gatherers”, engaged in “jobs without definition”: street peddlers, itinerant hawkers, fruits and vegetable sellers, taxi drivers and waste pickers; they can be seen everywhere across the cities, on street pavements, parks and subway stations where they sell whatever they can without paying rent or taxes.

Beyond the officially unemployed are informal sector workers, those working from home, the “self employed” the underemployed, precarious workers — ie, those without “permanent” or clear contract of work such as hourly, daily or seasonal workers, those with “blank contracts”, “discouraged” workers and “home-makers”.

If all these elements are taken into account, they could amount to between 15-20 million. 

In Iran, 19 million people are slum dwellers and marginalised. There are also an estimated 7 million child labourers, mostly between the ages of four and 10 years old.

The fall in real wages has been dramatic in the past few years. During the first six months of 2018 estimates are that real wages fell by 50% to 90%. This is partly due to currency devaluations during that period, but also due to a high inflation rate and aggressive neoliberal policies.

About 6% of the population, or 5 million people, are starving. Estimates of the number living below the poverty line vary between 35% and 80%. Yet Iran ranks second in the world in proven natural gas reserves and fourth in proven crude oil reserves.

The drive towards privatisation began in the early 2000s with the 2006 amendment of Article 44 of the Constitution. This allowed for the sale of state-owned companies, and the establishment of the Iranian Privatisation Organisation (IPO). Full-fledged privatisation of the economy, along with the dismantling of the social wage, cuts to social spending and state-subsidies, took place during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2005-13 presidency.

The main beneficiaries were the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and economic institutions under the control of the Supreme Leader Ali Kahmenei.

Privatisation led to corruption, nepotism and shady deals. A network of insiders, semi-criminal and corrupt cronies of the regime have grown, and share in looting the country with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his clan.

While those living at or below the poverty line and shanty towns inhabited by the “surplus population” spread and grow, privatisation and neoliberal policies have created a highly polarised society and an explosive situation. 

Labour rights

There is no trade union system in Iran and independent trade unions are banned. Workers lack the power of collective bargaining and are “represented” by state-controlled Islamic Workers’ Councils.

The Islamic Labour Councils are not trade unions; they are tripartite organisations made up of government, employers and (sham) worker “representatives” who are selected based on their loyalty to the regime and commitment to Islamic ideology. One of the tasks of these Labour Councils is to spy on militant workers.

The right to strike is not recognised by law, and labour strikes are brutally suppressed. Labour activists are routinely harassed, arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to long jail terms. Torture, beating and murder have been the modus operandi of the regime from its very inception, and are neither new nor isolated practices.

The International Trade Union Council (ITUC) Global Rights Index 2018 ranks Iran as a country with “no guarantee of rights”, that is, a country where “legislation may spell out certain rights, but workers have effectively no access to these rights”. The ITUC report says that “many labour activists remain arbitrarily imprisoned and in dire detention conditions”.

Against this background, two simultaneous waves of labour protests stand out, both in the southwest province of Khuzestan: the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company protests, and the National Steel Company protests in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan.

The Haft-Tappeh sugarcane company was established in 1961 and was the largest state-owned employer in the region. In 2015, the company was privatised, which led to between 5000-7000 job losses. There is a Haft-Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate, but it is not recognised by the company or the government. 

The Haft-Tappeh workers have been struggling for several years over a host of issues, including four months of unpaid wages and benefits, corrupt and incompetent management, and the growth in precarious work. They have been calling for the formation of independent workers’ councils and the re-nationalisation of the company.

The recent strikes at Haft-Tappeh started in November and continued for more than a month, bringing production to a standstill. It was during these protests that Esmail Bakhashi emerged as a prominent labour rights activist. Repeatedly in his speeches, he denounced kleptocracy, systematic corruption and mismanagement under the guise of privatisation, attacked workers’ exploitation and argued for the nationalisation of the company and the formation of an independent workers’ council.

On November 16, Haft Tappeh workers occupied the venue for Friday prayers in the nearby town of Shush, chanting angry slogans against the clergy and government authorities. In post-revolutionary Iran, Friday prayers have become a main ideological tool of the state, and are used to communicate official state policies and ideologies. They combine religion, politics and popular agitation. Invading and occupying these events is a serious step.  

In response, the regime sent its anti-riot squads to Shush, as a warning signal to the workers. 

On November 18, Bakhshi was arrested by security forces in Shush, together with civil society activist Sepideh Gholian and 18 other workers. Other workers were released later, but Bakhhshi and Gholian remained in jail, until Gholian was released on December 18 on bail.

Bakhshi was arrested on the sham charge of endangering “national security”. During his 25 days in detention, there was a veil of silence on Bakhshi’s whereabouts and condition, except for the news that, as a result of beatings, he had been taken to a local hospital with internal bleeding and a swollen face.

Bakhshi was released on bail on December 12. On January 4, he posted a letter on Instagram which revealed that during his 25 days in detention he had been subjected to torture, abuse and beating. Bakshi also challenged the Intelligence Minister to a live televised debate on the issue of his torture.

Bakhshi’s torture while in detention caused a public outcry.  According to Bakhshi’s lawyer, Farzaneh Zilabi, he was under pressure by intelligence agents to deny his claims, and was receiving threatening telephone calls. 

Given the extent of the public reaction to Bakhshi’s post, the authorities felt they had to react. In less than two weeks during January, a myriad of authorities, including the Minister of Intelligence, the Public Prosecutor, the Judiciary, the Parliamentary Committee on National Security and President's Bureau Chief, commented on the case and declared that after investigation, they had reached the conclusion that no torture had taken place.

Moreover, they turned the table and accused Bakhshi of connections with the Worker Communist Party of Iran in exile in Europe, and left the option open of prosecuting him for sedition. Bakhshi’s status changed from a complainant to accused, with threats of prosecution now hanging over his head. 

Ali Nejati, a retired Haft-Tappeh worker and labour activist, was arrested at his home in Shush in November. According to his lawyer, he was violently beaten by the security agents when he asked for an arrest warrant, despite his age and serious heart condition. Nejati was charged with “endangering national security”, “spreading propaganda against the state”, and “disrupting public order”. He remains in prison.

On December 17 and 18, the government arrested 40 leading steelworkers and strike organisers from the National Steel Company in Ahvaz. The steelworks complex came under close surveillance of security and intelligence forces. By late January, all arrested workers were released.

On January 19, the regime broadcast a program entitled Burnt Plot on the national television in which both Bakhshi and Gholian were placed before the cameras, delivering forced “confessions” about their subversive agenda of overthrowing the regime and their connections with Iranian “communist” groupings abroad.

A day after this broadcast, security forces attacked Gholian's home, violently arresting her and her brother. Around midnight of the same day, security forces also attacked Bakhshi’s home and took him away. Later the regime announced that Bakhshi had been arrested while trying to “flee the country” with the aid of his connections abroad. The whereabouts and conditions of Bakhshi and Gholian are unknown, and there are fears for their lives.

New managing director

Fearing the escalating situation, the government paid some of the Haft Tappeh workers’ unpaid wages and on December 1 appointed a new managing director. According to some reports, which cannot be verified, the previous managing director has fled the country after stealing US$800 million.

A major means of breaking workers’ strikes and creating divisions among workers is the formation of Islamic Labour Councils. On December 31, intelligence forces and Minister of Labour hastily set up sham elections for membership into Haft-Tappeh Islamic Labour Councils.

The very existence of the Islamic Labour Councils is a cause of bitter divisions among workers. Under threats and intimidations some of the striking workers joined the council. About 800 of Haft Tappeh workers took part in these elections and eight workers were elected as members of the Islamic Labour Council of Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Company.

On January 6, the Haft-Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate, the true workers’ representative recognised by the workers but not the government, published an announcement that rejected the Islamic Labour Council as bogus anti-labour formations. The result is the existence of parallel workers’ organisations, and this situation is not limited to the Haft-Tappeh company.

There were many other protests by wage and salary earners in Iran last year, notably by teachers, truck drivers, bazarshop keepers and traders, taxi drivers, hospital employees, office workers, petrochemical workers, municipality workers, farmers and students.

In 2017, the corrupt financialisation of the economy led to the collapse of large private banks and the disappearance of millions of Iranians’ savings. Private banks and financial institutions have been allowed to operate since 2000 and have proliferated without the Central Bank's supervision. Protests against the government and financial institutions continue throughout the country, but many people have not been able to recover their savings.

Significance

The Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Company and the National Steel workers’ protests are significant because they show the extent of working class consciousness and growing solidarity among sectors of workers, in the face of the common enemy: capitalism and theocratic rule. They are also significant because of the nature of their demands: for independent workers’ councils, job security and an end to privatisation and precarisation of work.

These protests represent the extent of anger among not only the working class but also the unemployed, the excluded and the marginalised — the social rejects and the “surplus population” of capitalism — against the regime and its pro-capital policies.

In both cases, protests that had started with demands for unpaid wages and conditions of employment turned into protests against neoliberal capitalism. While lower-levels of unpaid wages have been partially met, higher-level demands to nationalise the company and form independent workers’ councils, have not been addressed. 

The situation is explosive and the struggle continues.

[A much longer version of this article will be published soon at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]