Campaign Highlights Labor Concerns on International Workers’ Day
April 30, 2013
Iranian workers are on the front lines of the struggle to demand such basic rights as freedom of assembly and association. They are often the first victims of government crackdowns that aim to silence criticism.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director

(Beirut)– The Iranian government is increasingly  violating workers’ rights to peaceful assembly and association. Dozens of labor and independent trade union activists are in prison for speaking out in defense of workers.Human Rights Watch called for the government to end the crackdown and free labor rights advocates in anticipation of International Workers’ Day on May 1, as part of a joint campaign by Iranian and international rights groups to highlight the plight of workers.

Labor rights groups say that the rights of Iranian workers have come under increasing attack during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Security forces have harassed and arbitrarily arrested an increasing number of striking workers, who are then subjected to politically motivated prosecutions and unfair trials.

“Iranian workers are on the front lines of the struggle to demand such basic rights as freedom of assembly and association,”said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.“They are often the first victims of government crackdowns that aim to silence criticism.”

The Iranian government’s stranglehold on unionization and crackdown on labor rights activists have left workers without a voice to influence government policy and working conditions, even as the country’s worsening economic situation is pushing many into poverty, Human Rights Watch said. 

Independent trade unions are banned in Iran. More than a dozen labor activists are in prison for exercising their right to freedom of assembly and association. Many others have been released on bail, with cases pending against them in revolutionary courts. 

In a recent action, on April 15, 2013, authorities summoned Reza Shahabi, a union leader, back to Evin prison, in Tehran, to complete his six-year sentence for “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security” after granting him leave to get medical treatment. Shahabi was treasurer and member of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, an independent trade union repeatedly targeted by the authorities.

In early March, authorities rounded up at least seven prominent labor rights activists in Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s Kurdistan province, apparently on “national security” charges.

Earlier in 2013, Iran’s Supreme Work Council, a government body charged with promulgating labor regulations, set a 25 percent minimum wage increase (487,000 toman per month, about US$ 140) for the coming year. A group representing Tehran workers at the Islamic Labor Council, a state-sanctioned body that ostensibly acts to protect the rights of workers in lieu of independent trade unions, has officially submitted a complaint to the body demanding a larger increase. Article 41 of Iran’s labor law requires authorities to take the rate of inflation into account when establishing the minimum wage. The official inflation rate is close to 32 percent, but many economists say the real rate may be above 50 percent. 

Iran’s labor law does not recognize the right to create labor unions independent of government-sanctioned groups such as the Islamic Labor Council. Nonetheless, workers have formed large, independent unions, including the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane Workers’ Syndicate, and the Iran Free Workers’ Union. Since 2005, authorities have repeatedly harassed, summoned, arrested, convicted, and sentenced workers affiliated with these and other independent trade unions.

Most of these arrests have taken place during Internationa lWorkers’ Day celebrations or strikes the unions have called,often for backwages that have not been paid for months. For example, activists told Human Rights Watch that the Saveh and SAFA Rolling and Pipe Mills Company suspended payment of wages to 2,300 of its workers for three months at the end of the Iranian calendar year, March 2013, and that workers involved in a road construction project in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad province had similarly not been paid for seven months.

About 80 percent of workers are working under temporary, short-term or at-will employment arrangements, which severely restrict their benefits and provide little protection from summary firings by business owners, labor activists say.

The situation is particularly dire for the most vulnerable workers: women, children and Afghan migrants. Women are often the first victims of mass layoffs by companies, activists say, in part because of costs associated with providing health insurance and maternity leave. Labor activists say that some companies have sought to shirk their legal responsibilities to female workers by pressuring them to promise they will not get pregnant as long as they work for the company.

The number of child workers under age 15 has also increased, in contravention of article 79 of Iran’s labor law which prohibits employing anyone under that age, according to the official Iranian Labour News Agency. According to figures published by Iran’s parliamentary research center in September 2012, more than 90 percent of the 3.25 million children out of school were working.

Economic and financial sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union against Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program have worsened the plight of workers, labor activists told Human Rights Watch. An increasing number of factories have laid off workers in the past few years since sanctions tightened. According to official statistics, about 50 percent of manufacturing facilities in Iran have shut down production or are on the threshold of doing so, and many large factories are operating at around 30 percent capacity. According to the head of the Workers’ House, a government body, more than 100,000 workers lost their jobs between May 2011 and May 2012.

Labor activists who are currently in prison for peacefully exercising their right to peaceful assembly and association include: Reza Shahabi, Afshin Osanloo, Shahrokh Zamani, Mohammad Jarrahi, Behrouz Alamehzadeh, Behrouz Nikoufard, Alireza Saidi, Ali Azadi, Ghaleb Hosseini, Pedram Nasrollahi, Rasool Bodaghi, Abdolreza Ghanbari, Mehdi Farhi-Shandiz, Sharif Saedpanah, and Mozafar Salehnia. Afshin Osanloo, who has been in prison on false charges for more than three years now, has not been allowed medical leave even though he suffers from injuries sustained as a result of torture during interrogations in Evin and Sanandaj prisons. Others, like Behnam Ebrahimzadeh, Behzad Farajollahi, Khaled Hosseini, Vafa Ghaderi and Khalil Karimi are currently out of prison on medical furlough or bail.

Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) protect the right to form and join labor unions. Iran is a party to both of these treaties. Iran is a member of the International Labour Organization  (ILO), but has so far refused to sign conventions 87 (Freedom of Association and the Protection of the Right to Organize Convention) and 98 (Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention) of the ILO treaty. Iran is also a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor; it has not ratified ILO Convention 138 on minimum age for work.

“Regardless of sanctions or other causes of economic hardship in Iran, workers should have the right to organize, strike, and hold sit-ins, and speak out against government policies they consider harmful,” Whitson said.“The worsening crackdown on workers who try to exercise their rights is a flagrant violation of the Iranian government’s obligations to its people.”