Hundreds of Iranian workers took to the streets in the capital Tehran and the northwestern Kurdish city of Saqqez on Labor Day May 1, despite an official ban on demonstrations.
Workers demanded higher wages, better pensions, an end to privatization, and caps on the number of foreign workers allowed in the country.
In Tehran demonstrators gathered in front of the Parliament building and the Workers’ House, the headquarters of the national trade union. Security forces detained at least seven people, according to the Iran Workers Free Trade Union. Six people were arrested, according to state-run Iran Labor News Agency (ILNA).
Five independent trade unions, in tandem with the Pensioners Unity Group (PUG), called for the Labor Day demonstrations.
“We are in a situation that the minimum wage at most of the industrial and manufacturing complexes across Iran is four times below the poverty line,” they wrote in a joint statement. “And even these minimal wages are often paid only after months of delay and constant labor protests.”
The statement also criticized privatization, insisting that it has led to the closure of many industrial and manufacturing complexes across the country. President Hassan Rouhani’s administration has so far vehemently defended its privatization policy, and described it as the only way to create jobs.
“Unemployment, prostitution, drug addiction, child labor, selling kidneys, burglary, homelessness, and other social ills are the outcome of the government’s policies in recent decades,” the joint statement has read.
Meanwhile, a labor activist in the northwestern Kurdish city of Saqqez, Mahmoud Salehi, reported on social media that plainclothes security forces had stormed into a Labor Day assembly in the city’s main square, beating and detaining several demonstrators, including labor activist Othman Essma’eili, who was recently released from prison after serving a sentence for giving an interview to a foreign media organization.
Salehi said his hand was injured during the clashes as the plainclothes police tried to disperse the demonstrators. ILNA quoted an intelligence source as saying authorities arrested "only people who intended to create unrest.”
Authorities have been especially quick to crack down on demonstrations since mass protests swept the country in December and January. At the time, marchers initially expressed frustration with economic hardship and corruption, but eventually began calling for an overthrow of the entire ruling system.
Despite the lifting of international sanctions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, the country continues to grapple with high unemployment. Furthermore, the Islamic Republic does not recognize independent labor unions, and only endorses official or semi-official workers association, such as the Workers’ House.
Health Minister Qazizadeh Hashemi was another focus of protestors’ anger. Described as the “billionaire minister” by independent labor rights activists, Hashemi is accused by workers of withholding the three percent of the government’s budget that is supposed to go to the Social Welfare Fund, which in turn should provide workers with unemployment benefits and other protections.
Addressing the demonstrators on Labor Day, Deputy Secretary-General of the Workers’ House Hassan Sadeqi said, “For years governments have refrained from paying their share to the Social Welfare Fund. The governments’ total debt to the fund amounts to more than 14,600 trillion rials (roughly $34,758,180,671.1), so far.”