May Day's Distress
by REIHANEH MAZAHERI in Paris
30 Apr 2010 20:33
[ analysis ] May 1, International Workers' Day, will be observed in Iran with its leaders incarcerated by the Islamic Republic, enduring interrogation and torture. They have lead their resistance campaigns not out of political opposition to the current regime, but out of concern for their members' day to day survival. The country's perennially misguided economic policies continue to pile hardships onto this vulnerable strata of society.
Nationwide, the unemployment rate has been increasing at an alarming pace. The situation has reached crisis levels, according to Alireza Mahboob, head of Laborer's House, a quasi-government body charged with protecting laborers' rights.* He warns that if current trends continue, the result will be a loss of over a quarter of a million jobs this year, following a similar loss the previous year.
Recent massive layoffs will overshadow Workers' Day. In an April 9 interview, Hassan Saddeqi, a Laborer's House deputy, declared that the number of layoffs in the first two weeks of the Iranian new year was 50 percent higher than during the equivalent period last year. Taking just one trade as an example, during the two-week span there were a total of at least 2,500 layoffs at leather factories and workshops in Mashhad and in Ilam province, according to the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA). In the same period, other officially recorded layoffs in major industrial cities such as Abadan, Ahwaz, Khoramshahr, and Shiraz brought net job losses in the trade to more than 4,000.
Even the government, which undercounts the unemployed by rule and has refused to release any figures at all in recent months, predicts the national unemployment rate will climb to 11.2 percent. The Economist, extrapolating from the last available official figures, predicts that the rate will reach 13.2 percent. And independent economists, who estimated the real unemployment rate at 12.5 percent at the end of 2008, predict a 25 percent real unemployment rate by the end of the Iranian year, March 2011.
No Seats at the Green Table for Laborers
Along with rising unemployment, a tide of unchecked illegal imports and the persistent erosion of pay due to inflation sparked protests that commenced with Iranian Laborer's Week. Such protests take place every year, routinely falling on deaf ears. What was unexpected this year was the lack of any sign of support from the Greens, whose leaders insist that it as a grassroots, popular movement.
Some analysts have attributed this lack of support to the Greens' generally secular character. Belying references by leaders of the Green Movement to laborers' campaigns as religious, the protests are actually free of religious content. They are solely predicated on the right to a humane, respectable living standard.
Others believe that we can find the reason for the lack of support in the fundamentally divergent demands of the poor laborer and the more affluent. A Tehran-based economist describes the lack of empathy this way: Although Mir Hossein Mousavi has declared that laborers and farmers must be integrated into the Green Movement, there have been no visible alliance between the protesting middle class and the lower classes. The economist believes that the current incongruity has its root in the Reformists' time in power. He suggests that by prioritizing political expansion over economic growth, the affluent classes developed the belief that the conditions of those beneath them on the economic scale especially the laborer class, could be ignored. The split became visible in the 2005 presidential elections, where Ahmadinejad's superficial but compelling slogans of justice and economic fairness secured the votes of the poor.
The economist also believes that if instead of "universal" political demands, the Green Movement sought the redress of specific socioeconomic problems, it would benefit from the collaboration of laborers' campaigns. He suggests that laborers' demands for basic human sustenance should not be viewed as an unimportant sideshow.
Although the past ten months have seen the rise of street protests against Ahmadinejad's government and new expressions of political opposition, there seems to be no room in any of it for laborers' demands. The Green Movement, although popularly based, seems to have dissociated itself from the poor laboring classes. Although the leaders have recently gestured at support for laborers' campaigns, they are clearly reluctant to cross political red lines that have been heeded by governments throughout the three decades of the Islamic Republic.
Certainly, the Greens' leaders remember the 1979 Revolution, during which national laborers' strikes, especially in the oil industry, were one of the main causes of the Pahlavi dynasty's fall. A professor at Allameh Tabatabaie University says that Green leaders are well aware of the critical role laborers' organizations can play in popular struggles against oppressive regimes. It is exactly because of their potential power that the Green leadership has methodically distanced itself from such organizations since the movement's formative days. They have given no more than lip service support to the current laborers' campaigns and the idea of collaborating with them.
Furthermore, the professor observes, laborers and their organizations constitute central pillars of truly democratic societies. Their power to strike and cause financial paralysis is a strong deterrent to government abuse of civil rights. As a result, the Islamic Republic's governments have consistently prevented the formation of independent laborers' organizations. The leaders of the Green Movement, of course, all hail from those postrevolutionary governments.
A Hollow Right to Protest
Signs of economic slowdown started to appear in the middle of last year. According to Hossein Ghazavi, deputy director of Iran's Central Bank, the rate of economic growth fell from 6.9 percent to 3.3 percent in the 12 months after September 2008. The unemployment rate rose from 9.5 percent to 11.3 percent in the same period, a 19 percent jump.
At the same time, Iran's Central Bank also reported an inflation rate of 15 percent. Analysts predict an inflation rate of 18.5 percent for the current year.
Thus, two waves are eroding the purchasing power of those still earning wages: double digit inflation and recession. Delays in wage payments, mounting layoffs, and deterioration of working conditions have lead to sporadic protests in many industries, which happened to coincide with the postelection political crisis. During the past nine months, semiofficial news outlets have reported at least 35 separate laborers' protests around the nation, some at government-owned and -operated entities. Most were extinguished through officially sanctioned violence.
According to a legal expert in Tehran, there are no right-to-strike provisions in Iran's labor laws. An employer can thus readily fire a protesting employee. Furthermore, the government can prosecute that employee for disturbing public order, and even charge him with acting against national security.
According to this expert, Iran's postrevolutionary laws removed the right of laborers to form unions. There is provision for a Islamic Consultative Organization for Labor as the only legitimate body for safeguarding laborers' interests. During the 1980s and 1990s, this organization vastly expanded its reach in both industry and agriculture, methodically preventing the formation of any independent laborers' unions.
After Mohammad Khatami was elected president in 1997, there was some progress in laborers' freedom and rights. An agreement with the International Labor Organization, a UN agency, included reform of the country's labor laws. The Islamic Republic committed to officially recognize fundamental worker's rights, including the right to strike. The right to unionize, however, was left unmentioned. At the same time, the Reformists attracted independent leaders for Laborer's House. They obtained official permission to create a new party, the Islamic Party of Labor, to organize their efforts within a political framework.
Less than a decade later, when Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, these agreements had largely faded from memory. The new government replaced workers' representatives in the Islamic Consultative Organization for Labor with its own selections. The Ahmadinejad administration pursued similar replacement efforts with other labor-related organizations that resisted unconditional obedience, stripping them of any practical autonomy. The small window of hope for the protection of laborers' rights was closed. Since then, prominent labor activists have repeatedly been arrested or otherwise detained, removed from their positions, physically threatened, and seen their families harassed and intimidated.
Manipulated Statistics Conceal Growing Poverty
According to a January 2010 report by the Majles Research Center, Iran had the worst unemployment rate in the Middle East, and the 17th worst worldwide, out of 208 countries surveyed. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad keeps repeating that unemployment is at 5 percent, less than half what even his own government's official figures indicate.
Those official figures are themselves highly dubious. In the first year of Ahmadinejad's presidency, the Statistics Center of Iran drastically changed its definition of employment. According to the new definition, any person who has worked one hour in a week is considered "employed." Previously, the minimum was two full days worked in a week. The result, naturally, was that the official unemployment count plummeted.
Recently Iran's Supreme Labor Council set the current year's minimum monthly wage at 303,048 tomans (approximately US$300). According to reports, the figure was decided at council meetings attended by government, employers', and laborers' representatives. By comparison, the Central Bank puts the absolute poverty line for a family of five in Tehran at 700,000 tomans ($700), and outside experts contend that this line should actually be set at 1.5 million tomans ($1,500).
Workers at Tehran's independent municipal bus company and the government sugar refinery of Haft-Tapeh, as well as the Independent Union of Iranian Laborers and the trade organization of electrical and metal laborers of Kermanshah protested the council's minimum wage decision in a petition bearing thousands of signatures. They demanded that the minimum wage be set at a million tomans. These protests have led to more layoffs and the detention of more labor activists.
The Tehran economist points out that in the last few years laborers' conditions have worsened -- the real unemployment rate, the corrosive effect of very high inflation, and economic stagnation has placed them under serious pressure. Furthermore, Laborers' House, because of its close association with the government, is ineffective.
The government has declared a rash of privatizations in the last ten years -- promoted as a boon to the economy, they have, in fact, further destabilized it. The privatization push has been nothing more or less than a campaign of plutocratization, the building of a network of wealthy, powerful supporters through the closed-bidding sale of state property and assets to a select few at noncompetitive prices.
The economist argues that the Green Movement should pursue the realization of the diverse goals of specific popular groups, instead of its vague universal demands. With such an approach, it could benefit greatly from unity with the laborers' movement. The result would be to strengthen the campaigns for both democracy and the fundamental rights of Iran's working class.
*Translator's note: The choice of an English word for the central subject of this article poses a challenge. "Worker" has communist connotations. The collective term "labor" is associated with a British political party that now has little to do with the working class and no longer resists corporate union-busting efforts. In the United States, it primarily evokes a long weekend at the beginning of autumn, a barbecue picnic, and back-to-school sales.
For the most part, I have used the word "laborer." I hope the weight of this unusual word will give the reader pause to think of the Iranians it describes not as a uniform mass, but as millions of diverse people with one thing in common: the struggle for decent working conditions and a living wage.
Photo: Sign reads "I haven't been paid for 11 months."
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