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Dispatch | The Endless Day: A Look at the Lives of Iran's Women Day Laborers

by ABI MEHREGAN

26 Feb 2012 19:00Comments
iranweavingworldlargest.jpgBrutal conditions and rampant exploitation in the workplace, little relief at home.

[ dispatch ] The lot of women day laborers in Iran, with its patriarchal social structure and straitened economic conditions, is not a happy one. These women, around two million of them, are virtually helpless when it comes to the defense of their rights. In a situation where the supply of labor outstrips demand, Iranian women's historically subordinate role makes many virtual slaves to their jobs.

In a conservative culture where many families still look down on women working outside the home, economic pressure is the principal impetus for the rapid growth in the number of female day laborers. A secondary and related cause is the mass migration of rural Iranians to cities -- one of the largest ongoing internal migration trends in the world.

Newspaper and wall advertisements around Tehran indicate that women laborers are sought for the sort of jobs that require repetitive, intricate work. Sewing, ironing, and product packaging in various factories, domestic cleaning, nursing the elderly, and catering constitute the bulk of the jobs done by women day laborers. While at first glance these may appear to be simple jobs, a closer look reveals that they are given to women precisely because their gender makes it easy to exploit them.

Technological advances have changed the nature of factory work. There is no need to hire strong men to do many jobs that women can now do just as well. What has not changed is the nature of a male-dominated culture. Compared to men, female day laborers are prone to lower wages, longer hours, inferior working conditions, more uncertain job security, and much greater abuse of all kinds.

Life on the factory floor

None of the factories employing female day laborers in Tehran pay more than an average of 300,000 tomans (about $200) a month. No contracts are signed and no insurance coverage paid. One facility owner mentioned that no official from the workers' insurance agency has visited his facility in the past 15 years. Except for a very few factories, the workdays are 12 hours or even longer. The workplaces are habitually overcrowded and filthy, breeding grounds for disease, and most laborers are required to work either bending over or sitting on the floor. If the job requires sitting on a chair, the chairs are often rickety, too short, or simply broken. As a result of their working conditions, many laborers suffer maladies such as deformed spinal columns, skin rashes, respiratory illnesses, and severe eyesight problems. In addition, women routinely have to endure unwanted sexual advances.

Almost all day laborers eat lunch at workplace lunchrooms. They often eat the same low-grade food over and over again, and digestive illnesses are widespread as a consequence. The lunchroom is also another means by which workers' lives are tied to the factory for as long as they are on the floor. Since payment is dependent on volume -- often pursuant to a daily quota -- laborers work as fast as humanly possible. A foreman need never worry that day laborers will take too much time for their lunch breaks.

It really does not matter how aware these workers are regarding their rights, it only matters that they cannot even ask for what they are owed because they can so easily be replaced. In many instances workers' identifications cards are taken away from them, giving employers the opportunity to unilaterally exploit them, withhold their wages, or fire them without notice. All this with the knowledge that the laborers effectively have no legal support system.

Consider the case of Nourieh, an Afghan laborer who has been working in one such facility for the past two years. She is 35 and the mother of two children. She says that her employers routinely withhold part of her monthly salary of 250,000 tomans ($165), and in the meantime require her to perform the most difficult tasks. Her foreman acknowledges that the reason part of Nourieh's salary is withheld is to discourage her from leaving for a better-paying job.

Safe6345738918450.jpgThe government is hardly blameless in such stories. Recently enacted female labor legislation, ironically called the Family Protection Law, which requires insurance coverage and maternity leaves and restricts the length of workdays, has prompted many employers to forego officially hiring new female workers, in order to avoid dealing with extra costs or to threaten their female workers with dismissal with the drop of a hat. Many experts are of the opinion that such supposedly benevolent approach by the government was a cynical way to minimize female work outside the home -- or, at least, skew the statistics in that direction.

The economic stresses with which the lower classes contend has meant a deluge of female workers to factories over which the government has no practical oversight. Many of these factories have been registered as small workshops (which are supposed to be limited to five workers), which do not have to provide insurance.

One of the biggest obstacles faced by advocates for female laborers is the "official" number of female workers, statistics based on the number of those covered by insurance. But with so many uninsured, the numbers of whom increases daily, it is impossible to get a true picture of female workers' conditions in Iran. In addition, due to the lack of insurance coverage, there are no accurate statistics about the number of workplace accidents and injuries.

One official report indicates that 95 percent of carpet weavers are women between the ages of 12 to 16, even though by law no one under the age of 15 can be employed for such work. Experts have identified ten different varieties of skin disease these workers suffer. Yet few of them enjoy health insurance simply because they are usually hired as temporary laborers.

Many factories have moved their packaging facilities to the suburbs in an effort to cut costs. In the suburb of Shahriar, 30 miles southwest of Tehran, a packaging facility considers an eight-hour-a-day job "part time" and pays even less, about 200,000 tomans ($135) a month. This has not only placed the financial burden of paying for their transportation on these women, but employers have also refused to enact any safety provisions for those female laborers who have to leave their jobs late at night. Lengthy commutes also rob the women of much of the precious little time they have for rest and sleep.

laborermomwithkids.jpgMore pressures on the homefront

Most women day laborers reside on the cities' margins. Once they get back home, they change from their factory uniforms into their house clothes, entering yet another work environment. They perform the domestic tasks that they always have done, which nobody recognizes as proper work worthy of wages. And they are never safe in a male-dominant society that regards them as commodities.

Women workers have little opportunity to sleep or enjoy a decent meal. They are unable to spend sufficient time raising their children, and child abuse is common. Many "laborer children" suffer from infectious diseases due to living in unsanitary environments and playing in dirty streets. Lacking adequate maternal supervision, many are malnourished. Mothers often find themselves at police stations dealing with crimes committed by their children at a very young age.

Many of these women have either lost their husbands, or live with ones who are drug addicts. Young widows are the most vulnerable of this group. They are subjected to brutal treatment by their fathers and brothers, who consider themselves lords and masters. Their every gesture is scrutinized out of the fear, however baseless, that they might bring dishonor to the family. Women are frequently beaten for mundane things such as not bringing the tea fast enough. They also often need to cope with suitors approved by the men in the household. Outside employment, for those who are allowed to pursue it, actually tends to have a liberating effect on these women. Women with jobs outside the home have an escape from domestic isolation and depression and are more likely to stand up for their rights even as, ironically, they are denied them in the workplace.

Khadijeh's story

Khadijeh is 34 years old. She stands five-foot-three, has a pock-marked face, short arms, and fat fingers covered with scabs and wounds. She looks more like a man than a woman in her long black robe. Her clothes are old and she covers her hair very tightly. Even at home, she doesn't show her hair. She says it's become a habit of hers and she is uncomfortable taking off her scarf.

She works in a textile factory in Quds City near Tehran. Every morning she goes to the central square to catch the bus, together with 30 other workers, to work. Her shift starts at seven in the morning, when all the machines are turned on. From then on, it is like a horse race. Those who work fastest are the winners. They get a small bonus. The slower ones are penalized. This drama goes on almost every day, sometimes even on national holidays.

The factory comprises five units, each dedicated to a different task. They produce yarn for carpet weaving. Each section contains giant spools that produce thread which is woven together either in two- or four-ply to yield the final product. Workers must make sure the threads are not tangled or broken and woven together in a wrong ply. Khadijeh must run around and jump up and down to make sure the spools of thread, spaced about two-and-a-half yards apart, are all working properly. She guides the lines of thread so that they are in proper order, and continuously keep an eye on spools so that they don't run out of string. Disaster strikes when strings snag together and intertwine or snap. Then she has to untangle them, and once again put them in order to be tied together in proper ply. She says it sometimes seems like a game. You are racing against yourself, she says, and have to beat yourself in this game.

Then it is one o'clock -- time for lunch. Everybody is in an uproar to prepare. The machines are turned off, and Khadijeh's is always the last one. She follows the others toward the lunch room. Nobody has the energy even to talk. Everyone is carrying a cup, moving toward the hall. The lunch room is a big hall with dilapidated tables and chairs on two sides, one side for men and the other for women. Because there are more male workers, some men end up sitting near the women's section, which is against the law but nobody seems to care. Today's lunch is supposed to consist of rice, meat, and lentils, but there is no meat to be found in the rice. Everyone is in a sour mood. They eat their lunch quickly, cleaning their plates with pieces of bread to get every last scrap. Two of the workers collect the dirty dishes and wash them. Lunch is followed by a cup of tea, and then they start walking toward their sections. All this has taken half an hour.

Exactly at 1:30, the machinery is turned back on again. Once again the spools are lowered and threads start to fly. Again workers run from spool to spool to make sure everything is going smoothly. The rhythm of the work has turned the workers into virtual zombies. They all dance to the same music of the machines. Only the scent of sweat is inalterably human.

At 7:30, the factory alarm announces one last chance to put everything in order for the next day's work. Rather than being happy for the end of the workday, everyone is nervous about having met their quota. Khadijeh spends her last ounce of energy to collect strings and get her section ready for tomorrow. The factory foreman walks around talking only to those who were short of their quotas. Everybody's production level is announced on the factory floor and the foreman makes those who have not produced enough to pledge to do better tomorrow. Then everybody changes and goes out to catch the bus.

Khadijeh lives in a house in a back alley off of a wide street in Quds. The street is covered with garbage and trash and a stream of dirty water flows down the middle. People hang out of the windows and doors, talking to each other. Passersby are met with suspicious looks. Gossip spreads like wildfire around the neighborhood.

Open the front door and yous can see almost the entire house in an instant. The floors are covered with cheap rugs. There is a TV in one corner, a set of bedding in another, and two suitcases in a third, along with a refrigerator and some dishes. This is where Khadijeh lives, in 350 square feet, with her brother, her sister, and her sister's two children. The house belongs to her sister. Khadiejeh starts talking about her childhood.

"I was born in Lahrood, Meshkin. At that time it was not a city yet. My family was very poor. I had not finished primary school yet when my cousin found me a job in the local clinic. However, my mother did not let me work there, because she did not want me to talk to men. Around that same time, my mother got sick with a kidney infection, along with a number of other problems. She ended up bed-ridden. I had to quit school and take care of my mother. To earn some money, I did carpet weaving on a loom in our home. We had to draw water from a spring near our house. In the winter, I had to break the ice to clean the dishes and do the wash. My mother died a few years later and I ended up taking care of my three-year-old brother and eight-year-old sister. I fell into a deep depression.

"Then my older brother, who was working in Tehran, came and took us for a pilgrimage to the city of Mashhad and I visited the shrine of Imam Reza, twice! I got a little better, continued carpet weaving, and sent my brother and sister to school. I also started back at school myself. I finished middle school and started on high school. It took me an hour and a half to get to high school each day, but I finished. I hardly had any time to sleep. I would study, take care of my siblings, and weave carpets. Even then, they would not pay me enough and continuously robbed me of my wages. The only thing I asked of my brother and sister was to study hard. My brother finished school and joined the army for his service. The rest of us moved to Tehran to be closer to family.

"My older sister is 36. She has three boys and a girl. Her eldest son is doing his military service. Her daughter has just graduated from high school and plans to take the entrance exam for the university. She has very good children. When her husband was addicted, her son used to collect scrap paper and sell it to supplement his parents' income. He was also a street vendor and then started working in construction. He built this house when he was 17. My sister went through very rough times, but now conditions have improved. Her husband is clean now. It is true that we live in a very tiny house, but it is better than having none.

iranweavingworldlargest-1.jpg "It is hard to find a good man. First I was attracted to Mr. Jaafari, one of my coworkers. But his attention turned toward someone else. And before, while I was looking for a job, I was acquainted with a man who said he was a war veteran. He had lost his hand in the war. He was dressed in dirty and disheveled clothes, but he said he was getting 700,000 tomans [$465] per month from the government as a war veteran. He was also working somewhere, earning 300,000 tomans [$200]. His financial situation was good, but still I could not come to accept him, even though he liked me.... I told my sister about it, and she said it is a good match. She says all men are the same anyway. I really don't know, but I would like to get married, because I can't really do anything. I am only allowed to go to work. I cannot have any fun, or travel. It is very easy to gossip about you around here."

It's been four years since Khadijeh came to Tehran. Four days after she arrived with her sister, Maryam, she found a job in a men's shoe factory near Karaj. They had to stand eight hours a day on their feet and polish shoes. They had no insurance, no transportation, and worked for 120,000 tomans ($80) a month. They worked there for about eight months, but were paid for only the first three. The owner said he would pay the rest in installments; later on he told them that his financial situation was really dire and he could not pay the rest.

Khadijeh was terrified of not having any money and being dependent on others. She went through a string of jobs before she and Maryam found work at a textile factory. The job was 12 hours a day, no breaks, no insurance, no benefits, no weekends off, no vacation time. The workers, watched via closed-circuit camera, couldn't even talk to each other on the factory floor. All this for 246,000 tomans ($165) a month. They also had to surrender their identification cards, and always got paid a month late to make sure they didn't leave the job. Khadijeh and her sister had gone to the factory together, but Khadijeh lasted only half a day. She now works in a clothing packaging factory for 200,000 tomans ($135) a month. Khadijeh remembers her first days at her new job.

"It seemed like my hands did not belong to me. They were both numb. I couldn't even unbutton my uniform. The first day I went home in my factory uniform. I had run around so much and jumped around so many times that every muscle in my body ached. But now it's all become normal."

The factory has compulsory night shifts that begin at 6:30 in the evening and go to seven in the morning. Khadijeh says that the night shifts are much more difficult than day shifts and that her fellow workers sometimes fall asleep standing up. She and her sister, who works a 12-hour day shift, hardly ever get the chance to see each other. Both women often work on Fridays, the traditional weekend day off, and even on religious holidays.

Khadijeh's dream is to get a job as an aide in a government hospital. She has been trained as a health worker. She says it is not important what kind of job they give her, it could even be cleaning. If she had only one day left to live, she would want to spend it working in a hospital. She acknowledges that she is not in a position to get a better job. Moving to Tehran would mean more job opportunities, but also a much higher cost of living. She speaks over her shoulder as she goes to change and get ready for work.

Abi Mehregan is a pen name. A labor activist, the author is on the staff of Iran Labor Report. See also "The Weight of a Brick" by the same author.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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