President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears determined to confront Iran’s increasingly restive labor movement. The showdown, begun last year, could reach a peak next week with government plans to crush International Labor Day demonstrations on May 1 by illegal trade unions.
The Islamic republic has always associated May 1 with leftist ideologies and has tried to promote an alternative “Islamic Labor Day” on May 2.
The rising labor movement started with local grievances linked to wages and working conditions.
This year, however, a number of illegal trade unions have announced they would hold May 1 demonstrations in Tehran and 20 provincial capitals. The newly created Workers’ Organizations and Activists Coordination Council (WOACC), a grouping of over 80 illegal trade unions claiming a total membership of over a million in 22 cities, is leading the move.
The WOACC emerged in the wake of strikes by Tehran transport workers that brought the capital to a standstill last year. The authorities succeeded to end the strike with a mixture of mass arrests and wage concessions. However, the example set in Tehran spread to other cities and industries.
The rising labor movement started with local grievances linked to wages and working conditions. In the past few months, however, it has developed a broader consciousness by highlighting issues that concern most workers.
One issue that has brought the hitherto scattered illegal unions together is their opposition to President Ahmadinejad’s proposed new Islamic Labor Code. The text proposed by Ahmadinejad cancels virtually all the rights that working people have won throughout the world over centuries of social struggle and political reform. It abolishes the legal minimum wage in favor of rates fixed through agreement by employers and employees.
It also allows for the generalization of verbal employment contracts, gives employers the right to hire and fire as they please, and makes legal holidays, sick leave, and pension schemes conditional to agreements on a case-by-case basis.
At the same time, it imposes a ban on independent trade unions. Instead, it proposes the creation of Islamic Guidance Councils to promote “Islamic values and sensibilities” among workers.
In a detailed critique of the proposed text, the WOACC shows that the new code violates the Islamic republic’s constitution, Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and accords Iran has signed with the ILO over decades.
“The proposed text is a charter for slavery disguised as an Islamic code,” a WOACC spokesman in Tehran said over the telephone last week.
That view is shared by some members of the Islamic Consultative Majlis who criticize Ahmadinejad for refusing to submit his text to normal parliamentary procedures. Instead, the Ministry of Labor is trying to railroad the draft law through a Majlis committee controlled by pro-Ahmadinejad parliamentarians.
Ahmadinejad’s confrontational style in dealing with the labor movement has also been criticized by some top mullahs within the regime.
Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, the Islamic chief justice, has warned that the government’s repressive approach could destabilize the regime. Former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a mollah-cum-businessman who heads the powerful Expediency Council, has called for “sensitivity” in dealing with what may be the most serious challenge the regime has faced in years.
Why is Ahmadinejad so determined to defy a grass-root workers’ movement by imposing an unpopular law? Part of the answer may lie in the massive privatization scheme that Ahmadinejad is expected to unveil this year.
Most of the businesses concerned have been losing money for years, because of inefficient management and corruption.
According to government sources, 44 state-owned conglomerates will be put on sale at a total price of $18 billion. These businesses employ an estimated 3.5 million people across the country. A majority of likely buyers will be mollahs and their associates, operating through supposedly religious and charitable foundations, along with officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Although potential gold mines, most of the businesses concerned, have been losing money for years, because of inefficient management and corruption. They also suffer from the fact that they have had to employ far too many people, often because of nepotism and favor distribution by powerful figures of the regime.
Under the existing Labor Code, it would be difficult for the new owners to downsize the labor force or close loss-making units. The new Labor Code would give future owners carte blanche to reorganize the businesses. According to unofficial estimates, a million people could lose their jobs under privatization.
“Ahmadinejad is laying the banquet table for a big feast of plunder,” says the WOACC spokesman.
The situation is further complicated by UN-imposed sanctions that are starting to bite. Dozens of small businesses have already closed down or reduced their activities for want of credit facilities, imported parts and raw material, and fears of being shut out of foreign markets. The thousands of workers who have lost their jobs as a result plan to be in the vanguard of the May 1 demonstrations. ENDS AHMADI 30407
Editor’s note: Mr. Amir Taheri is a veteran Iranian journalist, author and commentator writing for many international and Arab media.
This article was published by the Riyadh-Based, English-language newspaper Arab News on 28 April 2007
Highlights are by IPS