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Source: “Kargaran-e Shushtar dar ‘Eteraz beh na amnane sheghali tajema’ kardand” (“Shushtar Workers Gather to Protest Job Insecurity,” Iranian Labor News Agency. 30 April 2012.
Michael Rubin:While Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini infused his rhetoric with calls for ‘social justice,’ when he inaugurated the Islamic Republic, he placed labor unions under strict government control. He charged the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs– reorganized in August 2011 into the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare – with licensing and coordinating labor unions. Iranian workers have long chafed under this arrangement, especially given the dominant role of government in the economy. Because the government, revolutionary foundations (bonyads) and Khatam al-Anbia, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ economic wing, control many industries and, according to some estimates, more than 40 percent of gross domestic product, most conflicts between workers and management are, in effect, disputes between workers and the government itself.
Most disputes are apolitical: workers regularly complain about unpaid wages, with management sometimes more than a half year in arrears. They also frequently complain about unsafe work conditions and dismissals without notice when one government entity purchases a factory or facility from another entity. When disputes occur, the government more often than not seeks to head them off by declaring them illegal and, in extreme cases, firing workers who continue to object. Because the government aims to control all labor, ‘troublemakers’ are unlikely to find employment elsewhere.
Over the last decade, however, there have been instances in which workers have struck in defiance of the government. First, in 2005 bus drivers in Tehran formed an independent union after a months-long illegal strike over unsafe working conditions. For his defiance, their leader, Mansour Ossanlou, served several stints in prison and had part of his tongue severed in an attempt by government-sponsored thugs to silence him. The following year sugar cane workers in Khuzistan—the southwestern province at the top of the Persian Gulf along the border with Iraq—also succeeded in forming an independent union.
It is in this context that labor unrest in Shustar (Biblical Susa) is relevant. Shushtar is also in Khuzistan, which is home to much of Iran’s oil industry. The Iranian regime will certainly worry that labor unrest in the region might spread to the oil industry, an eventuality that could spark greater unrest, as the central government must then either acquiesce to workers’ demands or, more likely, utilize security forces in actions which might precipitatemore violence.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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