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Iranian workers struggle for justice

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25 February, 2016Maziyar Gilaninejhad of the Union of the Metalworkers and Mechanics of Iran (UMMI) talks about the challenges and struggles of Iranian workers, and the likely effects of the nuclear deal on the economy.

Q: The economic situation in Iran is dire: the rate of unemployment and inflation is high, and the high price of basic food and rent is breaking people’s backs. From the point of view of the union, what is the cause of this situation?

MG: Since Iran’s economic approach turned to unrestrained financial capitalism, prices and unemployment have increased rapidly. Under President Rafsanjani, executing the directives of the World Bank and the IMF became a major factor in government policy. Recently, the economy has opened even further to finance capital.

Twenty-five years after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, our largest key industries, like steel mills, power generation, water, petrochemicals and so on are in crisis, and the uncontrolled imports have plunged domestic industries into stagnation. We now import products that we once exported.

Today more than 40 per cent of the labour force is either unemployed or works in precarious pseudo-jobs. At least three million people are living on unemployment insurance. While we previously had plants that were unparalleled in the Middle East, these industries are in crisis today.

Steel making plants like Zagros and Saaveh have closed down. More than five tyre manufacturing plants have shut. The production from smelting and casting foundries has plummeted to less than 40 per cent. Our car manufacturing companies are known for their poor-quality products.

Finance capital has infiltrated government, promoting large scale asset stripping. Manufacturing plants are driven to bankruptcy and privatized at below market value. Undoubtedly, these are IMF prescriptions that have been implemented in our country at the behest of global capital. The policy prescribed by IMF for countries like ours is to produce oil and nothing else. We have to import everything else.

Our proposal is to reopen, refurbish and modernize the manufacturing industries; to systematically increase the taxes on the rich and their income; and to close the doors to the import of goods that are or could be produced in Iran.

Q: How do workers deal with these issues?

MG: When working people see that the industries they work in cannot sell their products and cannot pay their wages - and see that their purchasing power decrease daily - they raise their voice and protest. They write letters to the authorities, stage protests and eventually, to have their voices heard, have no choice but to walk out and stop production. Finance capital cannot stand protest action. Article 27 of the Constitution allows workers to protest, but the police and security forces obstruct any protest action.

Over the past years, ILO Conventions 98 and 87 have been completely ignored and trade unions are under severe restrictions. For four months now, the office of the Justice Department in the province of Khuzestan has threatened any labour protest with judicial action.

Currently, several labour activists and teachers are in prison. Davoud Razavi, a member, and Ebrahim Madadi, president of the executive committee of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company Trade Union (Sherkat-e Vahed) have been summoned to the Revolutionary Court instead of the civil court. This is used to try cases of sedition.

Workers’ representatives from the Chadormaloo Iron Ore mines have also been taken to the Revolutionary Court. Several workers of Polyacryl in Isfahan have been sentenced. Twenty-eight worker representatives from the Khatoon-Abad copper mines were arrested. They have all subsequently been released on bail, amidst an outcry from unions and IndustriALL Global Union.

Q: After negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme, the country signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Many hope that the lifting of sanctions will improve the economic situation. What is your opinion?

MG: There is no doubt that the lifting of sanctions is a positive accomplishment. However, what are we going to do with it? Keep importing and shutting down industries?  No worker in the world beats the drums of war, ever. There is no doubt that working people are happy with the lifting of the sanctions. But as long as the economic policy of the government stays the same, nothing will change.

The JCPOA will result in foreign investment. No one opposes the import of useful technology. Bringing in suitable industries, with proper planning, will lead to development and progress and improve the technical knowledge of workers; it will also increase the number of jobs, which is good for the unions, and our membership and our bargaining power will increase. Industrial development will help with economic growth and in creating good jobs and higher wages.

However there are those in powerful circles who see no benefit for themselves in developing the nation.

Q: Can we expect that the relations between Iran and the West, and the US and EU in particular, will enter a phase of friendly relations after the JCPOA? Would this be a long-term situation?

MG: Currently the neighbouring countries of Iran on three sides are engaged in wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Turkey, which has got involved in the war in Syria. There have been attempts for a long time to pull Iran into another war. Extremists in Iran wouldn’t mind a clash with the US, and elements of global capital are trying to pull Iran into a war in order to change the geopolitical map of the region and do the same thing to Iran as they did to Libya and Iraq.

We need to counteract this ploy rationally. The working people of Iran oppose and object to the increase of tensions in foreign policy. This is one side of the matter.

However, the other is that we should be able not only to maintain our nation in peace, but also to keep other parties away from war. We should not have let our relations with Saudi Arabia sour. If we are allies of China and Russia in the region, we should learn self-restraint from Russia’s dealing with Turkey.

Signing an agreement is one thing, and carrying out that agreement is another. We have to elegantly force the other party of the agreement to fulfill its obligations, whatever they are. Contracts with the oil companies must be transparent. When Peugeot became the first Western country to sign a contract with Iran after the lifting of sanctions, there were rumours that the contract was humiliating and against the national interest. Rather than blaming France or the US, this has to do with our own negotiating strategy. We should not find ourselves forced into colonial deals, like the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, which saw Iran cede much control to Russia.

Finance capital supports war and chaos and strives towards it, because it can use chaos to seize national assets. In my opinion, our mafia-like capitalism cooperates and collaborates with foreign capital, which does not care for our sovereignty and prosperity.

Q: There are rumors that after the JCPOA agreement, Iran’s government will get back tens of billions of dollars of its seized assets and this money will save the economy. Is it UMMI’s expectation that production plants that have been in trouble in the recent years will begin production and therefore the situation of workers will improve?

MG: Mr Rouhani, the President, has stated that addressing the situation of key industries is a priority. We hope that the government will invest this money in manufacturing and production plants in order to boost the economy, and to improve the livelihood of the workers.

We outlined our plan for exiting the current crisis in a statement that we issued a few months ago. We have to utilize our full power to restore and re-launch our industries and employ up-to-date technologies in them.

Petro-dollars should be used to import technology. We have to prevent the import of goods and products that are produced in Iran. We have to revitalize industries, like the Haft-Tappeh sugar cane plant, that can supply the needs of the entire region and the Middle East. Today, Russia badly needs the products of this plant. More than fifty thousand people can be hired directly, and more than a hundred thousand people would be employed indirectly as a result.

In steel, we can reach self-sufficiency and take over markets like Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, and the Arab countries. Iran is located in a strategic region at the crossroad between Asia and Europe, and with investments in rail and road transit, we can provide an excellent transit line for international transportation. We can expand petrochemical industries and make the world depend on our petrochemical derivatives and products. The same goes without saying for oil and gas.

Q: What do the trade unions, and particularly the UMMI, think about the influx of foreign investors in Iran?

MG: If the government keeps conceding to finance capital, we will not benefit from foreign investment. The IMF wants Iran to provide cheap and deregulated labour for foreign investors. Since the presidency of Mr. Khatami in 1997, Iran’s government has done this, and created special trade and commerce zones that are excluded them from coverage by the Labour Law.

The government aims to remove any legal restrictions for wages, retirement, health and unemployment benefits in its sixth development plan. This is akin to saying to Mr Foreign Investor, “come in and do whatever you like with our workers”.

Will the influx of foreign investment lead to the import of modern technology into the country, or we would continue fastening nuts and bolts only? We see Brazil and China as examples. Utilizing foreign investments in their countries, they were able to create jobs and reduce unemployment, and achieve the development and growth that they planned for. Will this happen here? We have to wait and see.

Q: Next year’s minimum wage is the most important issue for workers. What do you think about the increase, and how the employers and the authorities are dealing with it?

MG: My friend! According to the Constitution and Labour Law, the minimum wage is the amount which a working family in Iran needs to live comfortably. Article 43 of the Constitution and Article 41 of the Labour Law are clear on this. Currently, the wages of workers are a quarter of the poverty level. Is this what is in the Constitution? Furthermore, sly employers base the wages for the next year on this year’s inflation rate only, which is a clear robbery.

According to economists such as Professor Raghfar, the poverty level is at three million tomans [about US$1,000] per month. If we want to follow the Constitution, the criteria for the minimum wage must be above this amount. Can the small shops afford to pay this much to their workers? In bargaining, you normally take into account what the other party can afford to pay, and also its capability, before you present your proposal.

Since Mr Rouhani took office and promised to follow the law and rules in dealing with workers, particularly on the matter of wages, nothing has been done. You mentioned the released dollars. Shouldn’t some of these dollars be spent on the wages of the workers?

The minimum wage was miscalculated by 12 per cent in the first year of his Presidency, and last year the increase in minimum wage was 17% less than expected and workers were also threatened. The 40,000 tomans [about US$13/mo] housing support that was approved last year was ignored and not ratified for pay.

This year they said that the inflation rate is 12 per cent and next year it will be 10 or 9 per cent. They better calculate this amount and pay the workers accordingly so that they are not labeled liars. They should increase the minimum wage by 60 per cent.

If workers’ representative go to the negotiating table and communicate the process of the negotiations to the workers, you can be sure that the government will agree - more or less - to this increase out of fear of the workers’ and public opinion.

If they remove restrictions on trade unions and act according to the letter of the Constitution and Article 26, as well as the ILO Conventions about the freedom of unions, the bargaining power of workers will undoubtedly increase and the wage issue will be resolved.

With union involvement, wages will be set at real values, the issue of child labour will be resolved, and by providing a safe working environment, the death of workers at workplaces could be stopped. Trade unions do not think only about their own interests, but they consider the interests of all the people and the national interests.

The government must admit that if it wants to exit the current crisis, it has no other way but to get help from civil society. Through a change from a capitalist approach to a popular approach, and with a national effort, the problems can be overcome. To reach political and economic security, the help of the people and particularly the independent labour unions is needed.

Q: What do you want to say about the solidarity which IndustriALL Global Union provides to you so far? Please tell us your expectations and wishes for the future.

MG: First I have to thank IndustriALL and the global trade union movement for their solidarity with Iranian workers and working people in the current difficult years. We believe that an active, prompt, and effective show of solidarity based on the demands of the struggling workers is one of the most important shows of international solidarity of workers.

Sending letters and messages from IndustriALL and other union organizations to the Iranian President and his ministers about the pressures on the trade union activists, or about the violation of the ILO Conventions and the charter of the human rights by the official state bodies, are practical and effective ways to seek justice on behalf of the Iranian workers. Indeed support from IndustriALL was instrumental in the release of the Khatoon-Abad copper miners.

Our union brothers and sisters can send letters to Iran’s President about the specific cases of arrests, mistreatments, human rights abuses, and the detention of trade union activists, and ask him as the head of the executive branch to intervene in these cases. National and international union organizations can arrange meetings with the President and his ministers during their foreign visits and on behalf of the Iranian workers demand justice and rights for the workers.

They can mobilize public opinion in support of our struggle by publishing our news and views about the labour developments in our country. International union organizations can directly ask the Iranian Minister of Labour to treat us, Iranian workers, according to the ILO Conventions, and protest the detention and illegal firing of trade union activists. They can defend us either by direct support or by filing our complaints with ILO.

 I would like to ask the trade unions that they don’t think of us only in times of trouble, but keep in touch regularly and exchange experiences and learn from each other and be aware of each other’s problems. We would like to hear about them and know about their challenges.

Finally, on behalf of the Union of the Metalworkers and Mechanics of Iran, I greet all labour activists around the world and along with them I say: May the solidarity of workers around the world be broader!