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Union activists tortured in Iran as strike wave spreads

6 December, 2018A wave of strike action across the province of Khuzestan has led to the arrest and torture of leading activists.

Workers at the Iran National Steel plant in Ahvaz have taken strike action on several occasions over the past year, in an ongoing dispute to demand unpaid wages and the return of their factory to public ownership. They have formed solidarity links with workers at the Haft Tappeh sugarcane complex in the city of Shush, who have been on strike for more than a month over unpaid wages and alleged corruption by managers.

There are also strikes at Abadan oil refinery, the Ahvaz Metro project, and among municipal employees in Hamidiyeh.

Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claims that the strikes are led by foreign enemies attempting to destroy the economy. But workers respond by describing Iran as “the House of Thieves - unique in the whole world”, insisting that “Our enemy is right here – they lie saying it’s America”.

On 18 November, a demonstration in Shush of 4,000 Haft Tapeh workers was attacked by security forces, and 18 prominent worker leaders were arrested. The next day, the sugarcane complex workers were joined in a solidarity rally by thousands of Ahvaz steel workers. The workers rallied in front of the governor's office, demanding the release of the activists.

Students at a number of universities also demonstrated in support.

The authorities released 14 of the activists, but Esmail Bakhshi, Mohamad Khanifar, Moslem Armand, Hosein Fazel and student activist Sepideh Gholian remain in prison.

There have been numerous reports that the activists are being tortured. This was confirmed recently when the families of Bakhshi and Gholian were able to visit them in prison. They reported that both had been subject to severe beatings and kept in solitary confinement. Bakhshi had severe bruising around the head. He had been pressurized to call off the strike.

IndustriALL Global Union’s Iranian affiliate, the Union of Metalworkers and Mechanics of Iran, said:

“We condem the severe physical and psychological conditions forced on Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian and call for their immediate and unconditional release.

“The responsibility for their suffering lies directly with the Iranian state. We are deeply and increasingly concerned about their lives.

“We call on workers across Iran and around the world to campaign for the release of all those arrested.”

IndustriALL assistant general secretary Kemal Özkan said:

“This attempt to break the strike through violence and intimidation brings great shame on the Iranian regime. Workers are striking for the wages they have earned, and their leaders bravely suffer torture to defend them.

“Iran must respect trade unions rights and core ILO Conventions, in particular 87 and 98.  Trade unionists must be able to do their jobs without intimidation and harassment, and have the right to establish independent unions.”

Both the steel plant and the sugarcane complex were privatized in dubious circumstances. Private owners bought the plants cheaply and regularly fail to pay wages. The companies do not recognize independent unions, which sometimes succeed in winning back wages after taking wildcat action.