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Worker Protests Spring Up In Iran, As Sanctions, Coronavirus Weaken Economy


Haft Tappeh Sugar Mill workers have been on strikes and protesting for almost two years for delayed wages and other grievances. November 15, 2019

Amid a worsening economy in Iran a new wave of worker protests have sprang up in the country in recent weeks, as government coffers empty out and many employers are unable to pay wages.

Municipal workers have been taking part in protest gatherings during the past week in at least two cities in Iran's Khuzestan Province, one of the areas worst hit by the coronavirus outbreak.

Meanwhile, coal miners in Kerman Province, machine manufacturers in Arak in the Central Province, and nurses in Tehran, Gilan and Isfahan Provinces have also taken part in industrial actions and protest gatherings during the past month.

On Saturday May 23, more than 50 municipal workers in Arvand Kenar near Abadan protested to the five-month delay in the payment of their wages.

The mayor of Arvand Kenar, Hamid Washakhi told the official news agency IRNA on Saturday that when he took office as mayor, the municipality was up to 25 billion rials in debt to the Social Security Organization which collects workers' insurance premiums as well as contributions to their pension fund.

He said the Municipality of Arvand Kenar, 45 Kilometers south of Abadan, has 140 workers while it really needs only 54. Often people are given jobs by local or national politicians who look to help acquaintances or to build popularity.

Municipal workers in Khorramshahr, also in the oil-rich Khuzestan Province, protested last week to non-payment of wages for four months.

Tough U.S. sanctions since 2018 and lately the coronavirus crisis have weakened Iran's already ill-managed economy, which has lost most of its pre-sanction oil income.

In another development, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) a group of nurses and medical staff staged several gatherings in front of the prosecutor's office in Isfahan since the beginning of May protesting against what they called "discrimination in payments and tariffs in Iran's health system."

The nurses told ILNA that a law was passed 13 years ago in the interest of fair payments, but the government has refused to implement the law. The protesters called on the prosecutor to follow the case and eliminate the discrimination.

Meanwhile, a group of nurses working in hospitals in Gilan Province, another area hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, gathered in front of the Ministry of Health in Tehran last week protesting their short-term contracts. The Ministry employs nurses based on 89-day contracts to avoid obligations under long-term contracts.

According to ILNA, the nurses complained that the Ministry has even breached the short-term contracts and did not pay them for their hard work during the past months. Dozens of nurses and other medical staff have lost their lives while dealing with large number of COVOD-19 patients during the past months.

Elsewhere, in another industrial action in Moghan in the northwest, workers protested to the privatization of a major agro-industrial company in that region.

Pointing out the problems created by sham privatization of other industries, the workers in Moghan called on the government to stop the process of privatization that puts the industry at the disposal of well-connected but otherwise non-expert managers who couldn't care less for the well-being of their workers or the business on which hundreds of workers rely for their livelihood.

This kind of privatization in the interest of the children and relatives of top clerics, commanders and state officials have in recent years created many problems and led to industrial action in steel mills and sugar factories in Khuzestan and machine manufacturing factories in Arak.

Hundreds of workers have been jailed, and some have been tortured during the past years while the government never assumed responsibility for its ill-managed privatization process while these enterprises failed to pay the workers for months.

According to a Fars news agency report, the government-appointed manager of the privatized Haft Tappeh Sugar Mill was accused in a court last week of bribing the local governor's wife to make sure that his workers' protest would lead to nowhere. The governor whose wife is said to have received $200,000 as cash payment and $25,000 toward the cost of her travel abroad, has not responded to the accusation, Mashregh News, a news website funded by the office of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reported.

The company's manager is also accused of receiving $1.5 billion at cheap government exchange rate and selling the dollars in the black market at a rate nearly four times higher.

In another development, more than three thousand coal miners in Kerman Province have ended their months-long protests only after a representative appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei promised to solve their problems within 45 days. Higher wages, long-term contracts and preventing the mines' privatization are among the workers' demands.

Meanwhile, workers at HEPCO, a machine manufacturing factory in Arak staged several days of demonstrations last week. Protests at this company have been going on for more than ten years since it was privatized in 2006. The company owes around 17 billion rials (around $4 million) to its workers for the wages that were not paid in 2016 and 2017.

HEPCO's shares have been recently listed for sale at the Tehran Stock exchange. The company, which was a profitable venture before privatization has been facing losses in recent years.

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    Roozbeh Bolhari

    Roozbeh Bolhari is a Radio Farda journalist and writer who specializes in labor issues in Iran and covers unions, labor activists and government labor policies.

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