Protests have erupted in Ahwaz over the past several months, especially in labour sector. The protesters’ demands and chants are many and varied; usually, they include heavy criticism of Iran’s government, including anger over its funding of wars. ‘Leave Syria and think about us’ was the main chant of Ahwazi steelworkers during their weeks of strike action over high prices, lack of purchasing power and government corruption. They also demanded the release of other activist workers (English.alarabiya, 2018 A).
According to media reports, protests that first began in outlying Ahwazi areas quickly moved towards the eponymously named regional capital of Ahwaz, with demonstrations in Street 30 and Martyrs Square. The first protests by workers at the state-owned Ahwaz Steel Company, which was nominally privatised following corruption cases were inspired by other workers across Iran who demanded their several-month overdue salaries. Despite previous violent confrontations with the security forces and severe provocations from regime personnel, the peaceful protests have continued, with participants facing arrest, oppression and fabricated charges for daring to demand the money owed them and decent working conditions. Although the regime has very deliberately ignored the protesters’ efforts to convey their concerns to government officials, the workers have not allowed this to stop them, announcing their commitment to protest until their demands are met; the first of these demands is the release of activists already detained and reportedly being tortured (Al Arabiya English, 2018 B).
Recent and current events in Ahwaz affirm the close relationship between the demands of political and labour movements, and the intertwined nature of the grievances motivating the wave of protests, with the systemic racism, oppression and corruption inextricably linked with the exploitation and low wages that initially drove the demonstrations. A common feature underlying all the Ahwazi protests is a wave of long-simmering anger at the injustices of what is widely perceived as the economic and political colonialism of the oil-and-gas-rich Ahwaz region by the regime in Tehran (Wewritewhatwelike, 2015).
As in the 1979 revolution, the sharp rise in political and labour-related mobilisation and protests in Ahwaz coincided with a wider movement across Iran against the injustice and oppression of the ruling regime. In 1979, a walkout by Ahwazi personnel at the oil and gas refineries, mostly around Abadan, was the trigger for a wave of strikes that shut down the fuel supply to Tehran, leaving the then-government effectively insolvent without the oil, gas and petrochemical derivatives that were and still are the lifeblood of Iran’s economy. Within weeks, the leadership in Tehran was fatally weakened, hastening the fall of the Shah and his hated regime.
In the lead-up to the 1979 uprising, spontaneous demonstrations and protests by thousands of Ahwazis angered by the regime’s injustices encouraged labour organisations to call for mass-mobilisation, with the labour leaders coordinating and organising with one another, as well as with activists. This led to an unprecedented level of coordination between political dissidents, labour organisations and activists in the region Whilst the demands focused on wages and working conditions, Ahwazi civil rights activism and related issues were also a common thread underlying the widespread dissatisfaction.
Reports from the time show that this unity between these Ahwazi different groups was one of the fatal blows that helped to paralyse the state and ultimately to hasten the downfall of the Shah’s regime. How had this happened? Where did the workers demanding industrial action in 1979 come from? And what were the political circumstances of the long history of the Ahwazi labour movement’s struggle?
Sheikh Mohammed Taher Khaqani, a senior cleric and Ahwazi freedom fighter, rose up against the Iranian state during the Pahlavi era. He was one of the staunchest opponents of Iran’s rulers after the revolution as well, despite being one of its pillars and senior leaders(al-Muthaqaf, 2017).
Sheikh Khaqani’s contributions to the revolution’s success included issuing a fatwa prohibiting work in the oil facilities in Ahwaz until the workers’ demands had been met. It should be stressed that it was this fatwa rather than any edict from Khomeini which led to strike action by workers in Ahwaz, Tehran and Isfahan, with the cleric, widely acknowledged as a moderate and principled figure respected across Iran.
After Sheikh Khaqani played a pioneering role in helping to unite the people in taking action against the Pahlavi regime, he took responsibility for raising and dispensing money for the striking Ahwazi workers. He assigned his brothers, Abdel-Mahdi Abdel-Hamid Khaqani and Sheikh Eissa Abdel-Hamid Khaqani, to collect donations from oil industry workers in Arab countries, as well as from some movements, tribes, businessmen and even his own relatives. He also received money from the Iraqi government during the era of Saddam Hussein in Beirut, who was supported by PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Despite the massive financial and logistical pressure, he managed to pay the striking Ahwazi workers and employees. This was a fatal blow for the Shah’s regime, which was already on its last legs.
Sheikh Mohammed Taher Khaqani
Because of the Ahwazi national struggle, successive Iranian regimes have always been extremely alert to any changes in the region, knowing that since the majority of the oil and gas that keeps the regime afloat is located there it is essential that any movement for freedom or rights be crushed immediately before it can grow and pose any threat to the regime’s absolute control. For this reason, the Ahwazi people of the region are subjected to the most draconian security measures with all protests and public gatherings outlawed and every movement organised by Ahwazi activists suppressed; Ahwazi civil activists are regularly and routinely arrested, imprisoned, tortured and often either exiled to distant regions of Iran far from their families or simply executed, as a ‘warning’ of the results of any call for freedom or human rights (Amnesty International, 2018).
Despite this, labour disputes, strikes and protests have flared up intermittently across the region. Amongst those currently on strike are the workers of the Qomad (Haft Tapeh) Sugar Refinery. This is one of the oldest state-run sugar refineries in Ahwaz. It was established 50 years ago after the regime of the time confiscated large swath of Ahwazi local farmers without any compensation to turn the land over to environmentally devastating sugarcane growing and refining, which has caused lethal levels of water contamination and made the once pristine rivers of the region salty and barren due to discharging vast amounts of toxic chemicals used in the refining process directly back into the rivers. This pollution has not only killed off marine life and reduced the amounts of drinking water available but led to disease outbreaks. The sugar refinery workers’ woes began with privatisation in 2015, which threw more than 4,000 permanent workers in already low-paid jobs into a limbo of zero-hours contracts, requiring them to sign contracts of limited terms with different departments of the company, which is located 15 kilometres north of Susa historic city. One of the major demands of Ahwazi workers is to end this ruinous privatisation policy and return the refineries to state ownership (Radiofarda, 2018 A).
The privatisation policy, however, was chosen by the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which effectively controls or profits from all business interests in Iran, either state-owned or private whether directly or indirectly. The IRGC seeks to retain its lucrative privatised operation which boosts its profits even while reducing workers’ pay and rights, while the Ahwazi labour movement is resisting this policy due to the widespread corruption, slave-wages and worsening work conditions. This situation has increased a feeling of frustration and alienation amongst Ahwazi workers, who are angry at the level of their work and the low wages, if they receive anything at all, as they watch all the profit going to the regime mafias while they are hugely exploited, powerless and abused.
In Solidarity with Qomad (Haft Tapeh) workers at the state-run steel factory in the capital, Ahwaz, who are experiencing the same problems, launched their own strikes in November and December of 2018, with employees demanding their unpaid wages, in many cases withheld for months, leaving them effectively working as slaves, and calling for improvements in their dire working conditions. Responding with the regime’s customary contempt to any calls for fairness and justice, Farhad Ashrafiniya, the Chief Justice of Ahwaz region, suggested that the protesting steelworkers’ demands for unpaid wages owed to them meant that they did not “agree with the law,” adding ominously, “We have a certain level of patience, and if they continue to gather, we’ll have to deal with other people” (Radiofarda, 2018 B).
Ashrafiniya said that if the workers wanted to raise their voice to the authorities and say that there are problems with the company, they had already done so, which he said shows that continuing the protests “is not right.”
The Chief Justice added: “The company can pay the wages of the workers and personnel when they return to production.”
Ahrafiniya’s statement was contradicted, according to the ILNA news agency, by Ahmed Shajirati, Deputy Director General for Co-operation, Labour and Social Welfare of the Ahwaz region, who said: “The Ahwazi workers’ expectation from the company is right, and the company should meet their demands, besides which, the workers have nothing to work with because they are not provided with the raw materials needed for production” (IranianLabour News Agency, 2018).
Four thousand workers from the steel company are currently protesting at their withheld wages and demanding a monthly paycheck, clarifying how the salary is paid, as well as listing the annual earnings and rewards (Radiofarda, 2018 C).
Protests organised by steel company workers have also been bolstered by ordinary Ahwazis who have shown their solidarity with the long-suffering steelworkers by joining their protests. Even these peaceful protests are menaced by regime personnel, however, with footage posted on accounts affiliated with local trade unions on social media showing special units of the Iranian internal security forces surrounding the demonstrators.
Ahwazi labour movement
Despite the menacing behaviour of the regime personnel seen in the footage, the protesters refuse to be put off, chanting slogans demanding their right as they march peacefully towards the governorate headquarters building in the city’s central marketplace. Among their chants are slogans like, ‘We will never accept humiliation!” “We want our rights!”, and “No to injustice…no to corruption!”(Martyrs.mojahedin, 2018).
The striking workers demand their long-delayed salaries, improved work conditions, and wage increases, which they point out is essential amid soaring prices and the plummeting value of the national currency and deteriorating economic conditions generally. Despite the dangers in any criticism of the regime, the protesters also chanted” Death to this deceptive government!” and “O citizen, understand us! We are workers, not a mob!” Other chants included,” Increased living costs are the price of participating in the elections!” Referring to the regime’s controversial expenditure on its cross-border militias and its intervention in regional countries they chanted “Leave Syria and Think About Us!”, as well as “Free the detained workers. “
As mentioned earlier, the protests by workers at the Ahwaz Steel Company broke out following others by their peers at Qomad (Haft Tapeh) company. At the start of these demonstrations, workers marched to demand their delayed pays. Workers of the Ahwaz Steel company staged protests in support of their colleagues in solidarity at enduring the same woes. At the start of the workers’ protests, they were surprised at the brutal repression by the authorities despite the peaceful nature of their protests, with many questioning the justifications given by the regime for this crackdown and the associated wave of nighttime raids and arrests of labour leaders who were dragged from their homes. on the homes. These are the same questions raised by Qomad (Haft Tapeh) workers days after the beginning of their protests (Iran Human rights monitor, 2018).
This comes as members of European parliament called for releasing Ahwazi workers arrested and imprisoned on December 16 for protesting peacefully over salaries unpaid for five months, with the MEPs in a joint statement denouncing the 41 arrests(Hathalyoum, 2018).
The statement called for the immediate release of detainees, urging the regime to respond positively to workers’ demands and cease the repression and brutality against the workers.
Several protesters have been holding daily protests demanding the workers’ release, chanting slogans like “We will never accept humiliation” and “Neither threats nor jail will intimidate us!”
Despite the arrests, the workers’ colleagues are demanding their release, along with assurances of their safety and urging an end to the involvement of state-sponsored ‘mafias’ running these industries, according to their statement.
The speaker and foreign policy chief of the European Parliament have also called for broader condemnation of the arrests, as well as urging the immediate release of the imprisoned workers.
On 24 December the families of the jailed Ahwaz steelworkers gathered in front of Ahwaz governor office, with the detainees’ young children holding signs calling for the release of their fathers. Their placards bore statements like: “Dad, we are waiting,” “Free my father,” “Free detained workers!” and a droll “Resistance economy and detained workers?”. According to the families, speaking ten days after the arrest of their loved ones, their inquiries about their jailed sons, husbands and brothers had received no response or acknowledgement. The families called on all Ahwazi people to support their stance and call for the release of the detained workers(Radiozamaneh, 2018).
Holding signs calling for the release of their sons
Some of the detainees have been named as Amin Alvani, Taregh Khalafi, Masoud Afri, Mostafa Ebeyat, Gharib Houizawi, Karim Sayahi, Hamed Baseri, Hafez Kanaani, Hamed Jodaki, Kazem Heydari, Majid Janandleh, Jassem Romezi, Ahmad Bawi, Seyd Mustafa Mosawi, Husain Asakra (Ahwaz human rights, 2018).
Some of the Ahwazi detainees
Ahwazi rights groups have supported the workers’ demands, strongly condemning the crackdown on them and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all detained workers.
It should be noted that this year saw a sharp increase in labour and freedom-related protests in Ahwaz against both government and non-governmental sectors due to racism, unemployment and discrimination, as well as other protests concerning water and air pollution. The labour protests have begun to show solidarity for each other’s protests, especially after the widespread demonstration, and many observers believe that this solidarity will lead to stronger and larger protests sweeping across Iran in the coming period.
Iran’s regime is genuinely afraid that these Ahwazi workers’ protests could grow into an effective economic resistance with labour rights once again becoming integrated into the Ahwazi political movement producing a state of rejecting further injustice and supporting radical resistance, not only to the current regime but to the state’s economic domination. The state fears that such a movement could then grow to include political demands that guarantee the basic rights of the Ahwazi people. As a result of these fears, the regime is yet again attempting to halt the workers’ protests through repression in order to eliminate the labour protests and any outward ripple growing into a tidal wave that may ultimately sweep it away. Whether or not the regime can succeed in this objective remains to be seen.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42
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