‘No guarantee of rights’: The plight of Iranian workers

Distributing cookies to bus drivers seeking higher wages has landed one Iranian union activist in prison for five years.

Ebrahim Madadi was charged with “assembly and collusion against national security” in Iran in October for distributing the cookies and negotiating with government authorities for higher pay. He is among countless workers in Iran who are harassed, beaten and imprisoned for peaceful labor activities.

In Iran, it’s often considered a crime for workers to strike for unpaid wages.

Infographic giving consequences for labor activity in Iran (Graphic: State Dept./Images: Shutterstock)
(Graphic: State Dept./Images: Shutterstock)

Iran has been hit with a wave of strikes — from transportation workers to teachers to factory workers to shopkeepers — seeking back wages, higher pay and better working conditions.

The Iranian regime refuses to allow independent trade unions and stops workers from holding peaceful assemblies, in spite of its own laws. Iran’s constitution permits public gatherings and marches, and Iran has ratified the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Global support for Iran’s workers

The Iranian regime has even called for the death penalty to rein in thousands of truck drivers who have launched three strikes across major cities in 2018. Hundreds of striking truckers have been detained for protesting low and unpaid wages, the high cost of parts, and other rising costs caused by the regime’s mismanagement of the economy.

“The death penalty for striking is the most serious of violations of workers’ rights, it’s inhumane and unthinkable,” the International Transport Workers’ Federation general secretary, Stephen Cotton, said in a statement.

James Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union representing 1.4 million transportation workers in the U.S. and Canada, urged Iran’s regime to listen to the striking truck drivers, address their demands, and acknowledge their “internationally recognized rights to assembly, speech, freedom of association and collective bargaining.”

“The International Brotherhood of Teamsters … stands in solidarity with our Iranian brothers and sisters,” Hoffa said.

Following attacks on and detention of striking unpaid steel workers in Ahvaz in March, the International Trade Union Confederation’s General Secretary Sharan Burrow said nonpayment of wages remained a major problem in Iran. She said Iran’s labor problems were caused by “the pervasive hold that the Iranian military has on the economy, and the influence of arch-conservative clerics.”

The steel workers have waged several major strikes in 2018, as have the Haft Tappeh sugarcane workers of Ahvaz for the same reasons: mismanagement of their factories and unpaid wages. Despite the heavy presence of security forces and previous mass arrests, the steel workers recently joined forces with the sugarcane workers in demanding the release of imprisoned workers.

A case of serious failure

Even before the wave of strikes this year, global organizations had condemned Iran for its treatment of workers. The International Labour Organization, of which Iran is a founding member, designated Iran among its “cases of serious failure” in its 2017 General Report for failing to report on its workers.

The International Trade Union Confederation, likewise, ranked Iran in the lowest category — “no guarantee of rights” — in its 2018 Global Rights Index.

“It is economic solutions that are needed. Not threats of executions,” said Cotton of the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “The United States condemns oppression levied on the Iranian people by those who rule unjustly, and we proudly amplify the voices of those in Iran longing to have those inalienable and universal human rights cease to be ignored and instead to be honored.”