Question: What is the state of the trade union movement in Iran? In particular, how would you describe the attitude of employers to workers’ rights – do they have any belief in the essential role of trade unions?
Answer: In the current situation of the trade unions and labour movement in Iran, the attitude of the employers is not good and they generally still do not recognise independent trade unions and their activity. With the flogging of the Aghdarreh miners in June, as a punishment for protesting against their conditions, we are entering a new phase where employers can easily complain about such activity and thereby condemn them. Not only do employers see the activities and operation of trade unions as obstacles in the way of their exploitation and profiteering, government economic policies are also aimed at the deregulation of labour relations in the country. In the last week of July the government excluded more than 28 areas of the country from the application of Iranian labour law and declared them as “Free Economic and Trade Zones”.
Question: Is the labour law properly implemented in Iran? What is the official view of the government in relation to trade union rights and related activities?
Answer: The issue of the enforcement of such laws anywhere in the world depends on the balance of power between the labour movement and government. In Iran, on some very basic and trivial issues, we can challenge the employers and prevent the violation of workers’ rights. But regarding the key macro issues I would have to say NO as such provisions of labour law are pushed aside and nobody except the workers see themselves as obligated to implement them. The Ministry of Labour is still interested in promoting and imposing its own pet structures and tries hard to impose them as the supposedly legitimate representatives of the workers.
Question: What is your opinion about the formal institutions such as the “House of Labour” and Islamic Labour Councils? Have the activities of these institutions made any impact on the lives of workers and the activities of the independent labour organisations? Have these institutions ever played a positive role in changing the situation of workers in Iran?
Answer: What can be said about the record and policies of the “House of Labour” or the Islamic Labour Councils in the decades that they have been active is that they are practically controlled and maintained by the Ministry of Labour and do not have any independent function whatsoever. As well as them being government-controlled, they cannot be considered real worker organisations as they are ideologically exclusive – believing in Islam is a fundamental pre-condition of membership. These bodies are religious organisations that operate to promote government policies and instructions in the work place. During the thirty years of their operation, these institutions have not taken any positive step for workers as they coordinate their activities with the Ministry of Labour and the employers against the labour and the trade union movement. Recent examples of this include their connivance in the recent flogging of the mineworkers for protesting against their conditions, or their part in ratifying a minimum wage that was at least 75% less than the government-defined poverty line.
Question: At the beginning of his presidency, Mr Rouhani promised that he will attend to labour issues and the question of trade union freedoms. Has he or his government done anything in relation to the realisation of workers’ rights?
Answer: Unfortunately, despite his promise to implement the law, he did not fulfil that. His Ministry of Labour have not only has avoided their responsibilities in dealing with the disputes between workers and employers, but have also failed to prevent the intervention of security forces in attacking the labour strikes. The government is dragging its feet in relation to the payment of an extra £4 housing allowance, while senior government officers have enjoyed a 50% increase in their salaries and other benefits. Imports continue unabated while domestic industries are still in recession. Unemployment and poverty is creating havoc but the ruinous prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund are being implemented nonetheless. And the government seems merely concerned with providing cheap labour for foreign investors.
Question: Are the conditions for organising those on corporate payrolls and employees in Iran any easier than for organising workers? How is job security in Iran?
Answer: There is no such thing as job security in Iran and the trade union rights of civil servants as well as those of non-governmental workers – white and blue collar alike – -are both violated every day in the same way. Of course the employers have their own associations and are able to exert huge influence in the economy and labour market.
Question: Has the signing of the Joint Compliance Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the 5+1 had any significant, or even evident, impact on the status and situation of wage-earners and salaried employees?
Answer: Unfortunately, I have to say no. Despite the promises of our country’s officials that the economy would be reenergised and improve – with the signing of the JCPOA, lifting of the sanctions and the return of billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue – unfortunately, not only have these promises not been fulfilled but also the US and European signatories to the agreement have not kept to their side of the deal in lifting the sanctions, particularly those pertaining to banking and monetary systems. In order to attract foreign investment in the country, the government has intensified its privatisation programme and the lowering of labour costs. It is trying to amend and change the labour law code by removing those articles that support the fundamental rights of workers. There is no doubt that the JCPOA has not only failed to have any positive impact but has in fact led to the further deterioration lives of ordinary workers in Iran. Not only are no new jobs created, instead there exist now concerted efforts to pave the way for the supply of cheap and unregulated labour.
This year all activists and trade unionists in the oil industry have been sacked. Everywhere in the oil industry you meet workers that have not received their wages for more than 4 months.
Question: How do you see the prospects for trade union activities in Iran?
Answer: There is no doubt that with the activities that have taken place over the past ten years and the role of trade unions in educating the workers as well as the availability of new technology for easy access to information, we have been able to raise the demands of workers stronger with every day. We have established a good relationship with the workers through the monthly publication of “Trade Union Messenger” that is printed and distributed widely amongst them. And, with the latest issue dated July 2016, we have now published, printed and distributed 50 issues continuously over the past seven years.
Question: The Metalworkers in Iran have been able to engage successfully with trade union federations internationally and in particular with the IndustriALL global union. What assistance could active trade union organisations in other countries – and in particular international workers institutions – provide you with in the campaign for achieving trade union rights in Iran for the workers? What would you ask of them?
Answer: I must admit that in recent years IndustriALL global union has been able to help us in various campaigns and reduce the pressure on the trade unions in Iran. Our representatives have had important consultative meetings with those from the leadership of IndustriALL and we hope that this solidarity is expanded and strengthened every day. One of our requests, from international trade union organisations across the world, has been that they use their influence in powerful bodies such as the ILO to press the Iranian authorities and employers to implement the terms of the ILO conventions 87 and 98.
Three years ago UMMI with the help of its labour lawyers prepared a complaint about the lack of any attention to the standard health and safety at work regulations and submitted it to the ILO. This referred to the death of two female workers.
Last month, we again witnessed another terrible incident in which a tank in a petrochemical plant burst owing to the poor quality of parts used. This followed on from an explosion at another petrochemical plant a year ago which took the life of Shahram Mohammadi, a dedicated and selfless worker.
The communication, exchange of information and training of workers between our representative organs could be another field in which cooperation is beneficial. Of course, the re-production of reports and information from our publications in the bulletins and magazines of trade unions and global trade union confederations internationally would also be very positive.
We believe that the strength, influence and success of any trade union in any corner of the world is also the strength of Iranian trade unions, including the Union of Metalworkers of Iran, and we will celebrate it.