Iran continues to be front page news around the world. Yet little attention is paid to the daily life of Iran’s workers. In the spirit of May Day, I have conducted an interview with renowned Iranian labor activist Mansour Osanlou regarding the present situation of labor in Iran.
Mansour Osanloo is one of most well known labor activists from Iran. He is one of the principal founders of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, leading one of the largest strikes in Iranian history and campaigning vigorously for workers’ rights. Osanlou was arrested and imprisoned several times from 2005 to 2008 for his organizing activities. In 2008 Osanloo was sentenced to 5 years held in Evin Prison, and freed in June 2013. Osanlou’s uncompromising stance for labor rights and his resolve as a political prisoner has earned him international praise and support.
This interview was conducted in Farsi, and has been translated from its original form.
Hamid Yazdan Panah: Mr. Osanlou, how does the Iranian labor movement relate to the broader struggle for democratic change in Iran?
Mansour Osanloo: The labor movement has a deep impact on the struggle for human rights and democracy in Iran, and as the labor movement grows, it benefits the struggle for democracy and freedom. This is based on the fact that the labor movement involves the largest and most important segment of the masses into this struggle. The movement of workers as the builders of society, will inevitably push that society towards democracy. Labor movements which occur in the most widespread form will force the government and society to respond and take action. The involvement of the working class appearance in the social and political realm has been shown to increase the level of democracy in every society. It is clear that the labor movement can promote the distribution equality of within a in society.
HYP: Recently there has been a number of strikes within the country, including by teachers unions. What do you expect will come of these strikes?
MO: The strikes and protests of workers can create progress and inspire hope. With the internet networks and the increase of information being used to overcome censorship, and with unity between workers, nurses, teachers and the continuation of their struggle, it can become a national protest movement and can change the present situation which is unjust and inhumane.
HYP: The UN special rapporteur for human rights, Ahmad Shaheed, recently released a report in which he stated the the human rights situation has actually gotten worse under Rouhani administration. Has this also affected labor unions?
MO: During Rouhani’s presidency we have seen an increase in repression against labor unions, and a rise in the number of workers imprisoned. None of these political prisoners or workers, or teachers who have been arrested have been released. They have not given workers permission to celebrate May 1st (international workers day) nor do they give permission to any other gatherings for worker to voice their problems. More workers have been got laid off. Free and independent labor organizations are not allowed. There has been an increase in attacks and raids against workers in their homes, or in labor meetings which take place within the homes of workers. The income and wages of workers have not increased in accordance with the cost of higher living.
We see an increase in the use of temporary contract labor, without any job security or guarantees. Accidents no the job have increased, yet insurance for workers has continued to decrease. The privatization and destruction of industry and production centers has been on the rise, and many industries and mines have been closed.
We continue to see an increase in judicial decisions against workers. This includes prison terms, or sentences that involve being whipped or flogged. There has also been a movement to fire long time workers for no cause, and rehire workers on half or less than half of their salary.
In many areas of the economy, and investment sectors we see the denial of the rights and wages of workers; teachers, nurses, artists and reporters. Many months go by without waged being properly paid. The governmental laws and regulations which are meant to protect workers are not upheld. They have stopped the implementation of workers rights, and workers and wage laborers are forced to work without compensation or protection. It is something akin to modern slavery. These are what we have seen during Rouhani’s term. Free labor unions are under intense pressure.
HYP: The regime has arrested and imprisoned a number of labor activists. Can you please tell us about their current situation.
MO: Currently, dozens of workers and labor activists and reporters and teachers are imprisoned. Many unemployed or laid off workers are also imprisoned. Behnam Ebrahimzadeh a syndicalist worker is currently imprisoned. After serving a 5 year sentence, instead of being freed, he was given a new 9 year sentence in Gohardasht prison in Karaj, and is currently serving his time there. He is in poor health and under intense pressure.Rasul Boudaghi a teacher who was imprisoned for 6 years, was sent recently to the notorious ward 209 of Evin prison. He is under pressure to testify against himself and a teachers labor organization. In the last few days, Ebrahim Madadi and Davood Razavi and Mahmoud Salehi and Osman Ismaili and Pedram Nasrollahi and Jafar Azimzadeh and dozens of other labor activists and organizers in Khuzestan have all been arrested in anticipation of May Day.In prison, the rights of prisoners are never upheld. They do not provide them with proper meals, or sanitary living conditions. They are denied adequate medical care, and they are condemned to a silent and slow death. However, even in this situation they resist, and from prison they send messages of solidarity.
HYP: One subject that is very rarely reported on is the use of child labor in Iran. Can you shed light on this issue?
MO: Child workers are in a very bitter situation in Iran. One can estimate that there may be as many as 5 million in Iran. In the past few years many have dropped out of the school system and have become illegal workers in the economy. Thousands of these children have no national ID card, and are fathered in neighboring countries, or have parents who are drug addicts, or have no proper guardianship. The children of the poor or underprivileged families have all become child laborers. They work for the smallest amount of money, and under the worst conditions, and are the victims of countless societal crimes. They are subject to exploitation and are sold or trafficked. These children have no protectors in our society. The few activists who try to assist them are subject to arrest, and their organizations are shut down by the government. A number of these activists have been arrested and are subject to torture.
HYP: What is the situation for immigrants and refugee workers in Iran such as Afghan refugees. Are they treated equally in the work place?
MO: Foreign workers in Iran are also in a very tragic situation. When Iranian workers face such inequities and repression, you can imagine what a foreign worker faces. They are subject to exploitation and abuse by the government. Both economic and sexual. They provide them with less compensation, and often deny them wages all together. If they ask for their wages, they are beaten and threatened with arrest for being an unlawful worker, and are forced into undertaking illegal activities. Often times they are trained by the Iranian revolutionary guard and are sent to fight abroad in Iraq or Afghanistan.
HYP: What do you believe is the largest obstacle to fair employment practices in Iran?
MO: The largest problem for Iranian workers is the government itself. The government is anti-worker, anti-production and has increased unemployment. They import cheap goods from China and India, and destroyed local production and skilled labor inside in Iran. They continue to prevent the organization of labor unions and syndicates, they imprison workers and limit the freedom of ordinary people and workers. We are faced with unemployment, the closure of factories, and the firing of old labor activists with experience in organizing and activism. The continual laying off of workers, and the withholding of long term job security, are some of the many problems they face in Iran. Worse of all is the armed and violent suppression of workers, and handing over control and management of factories and economic sectors into the hands of Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They do not allow for the organization of labor. They create a climate of division, fear, and mistrust. They use money to buy certain individuals and undermine unity among workers. As a result this culture of individualism, close mindedness and selfishness has undermined the spirit of solidarity with workers.
HYP: Lastly, what can we do to stand in solidarity with the labor movement in Iran?
MO: In order to help workers and labor activists in Iran, we need a collective effort to support the financial and organizational needs of the resistance. This includes assisting in organizing the technological means for resistance for activists, including promoting the sharing of information, spreading news, and creating organizational unity among the activist groups. Also the promotion of activist networks, and collectives, and employing new tactics to increase organization. For example sharing information using satellite TV stations, or the internet, or communicating using in person meetings or meetings over the internet, these are the best ways to promote this struggle.
Hamid Yazdan Panah is an attorney, human rights activist, and refugee residing in the San Francisco Bay Area.