Systematic abuse of worker rights has been a hallmark of the regime in Iran since its very inception. At the heart of the attack against workers is subjection of workers to minimum wage levels, which by the government’s own admission, are one third of the official poverty line, and suppression of workers’ attempts to organise and strike.
The name ‘trade union’ is banned under the Islamic Republic, which has relied on its own handmade ‘Islamic councils of labour’ in workplaces to spy on and keep workers’ protests in check. So when, in 2006, the bus workers in the capital Tehran started reviving their trade union and took strike action for the right to organise and for better pay and conditions, over 1,000 were arrested. Only through powerful protests in Iran and through magnificent international support by workers’ and human rights organisations around the world could many of the arrested be eventually freed. However, Union leaders were subjected to years of persecution, including the executive board member Reza Shahabi, who is still serving a four-year sentence in jail, despite serious medical conditions.
The regime is clearly frightened by the ‘threat’ of worker protests, not only in its attempts to protect the rights of the capitalist class that it represents (the regime itself is made up of billionaire Ayatollahs), but in order to pre-empt it from developing into a political protest that can bring down the entire regime. The regime, which has survived only through mass executions, torture and jailing, is despised by virtually all sections of the society, especially workers who have been driven to abject poverty and subjected to brutal persecution. The regime’s dread of workers’ protests tends to reach its height in particular on such days as May Day and International Women’s Day, as workers start to organise and prepare for independent protests and rallies.
So again this year, in the build up to International Women’s Day, worker leaders were arrested and detained on trumped up charges, and as we are nearing May Day, the regime is stepping up its persecution of labour activists. Early April, two trade unionists, Sharif Saed Panah and Mozaffar Saleh Nia, were given six-month jail sentences each. Labour leaders Reza Shahabi and Behnam Ebrahimzadeh, both on temporary medical leave from prison, are due to be returned to prison.
Given the scale of its economic crisis and the widespread poverty following the scrapping of most subsidies and implementation of austerity measures, the regime is clearly frightened by the prospect of mass social protests. The increased persecution of trade union leaders are happening in this context.
Union activists currently in detention (or about to be jailed) include:
• Behnam Ebrahimzadeh, a labour and children’s rights activist, who has already served three years of a five-year sentence, while his 14-year old son is in hospital for leukaemia. The extension of his medical leave has been refused
• Mohammad Jarahi, serving a five-year sentence despite a serious medical condition
• Ghaleb Hosseini, detained February 2013
• Rasoul Bodaghi, serving a six-year sentence
• Abdolreza Ghanbari, on death row for taking part in anti-government protests in December 2009
• Shahrokh Zamani, serving an 11-year sentence
Arbitrary arrests and detentions, long prison terms following fabricated trials, torture and abuse, denial of medical care, threatening the families of the detainees, imposition of extortionate bails are part of a programme of persistent persecution which the Islamic regime in Iran practises against workers demanding their rights and attempting to organise.
Only forceful protests in Iran and internationally can put an end to this flagrant denial of worker rights and persecution of labour activists.
Shahrokh Zamani, a labourer, is a member of the organising committee of the Painters Labour Syndicate. He was arrested in January 2011 and sentenced to 11 years imprisonment for “participating in the organisation of an unlawful group opposing the state… with the aim of disrupting national security by way of workers’ strikes and armed rebellion… assembly and collusion to further illegal activities… and propaganda against the regime.” He denies the charges. Two others were arrested with him but have since been released. After his arrest, he went on hunger strike for 4 months and spent 36 days in solitary confinement. His lawyer was denied access to his court files and was not allowed to speak in court. He has had to undergo harsh physical interrogation and his physical condition is said to be deteriorating. Iranian prisoners are sometimes granted leave, after they must again present themselves to the prison. In the case of Mr. Zamani, he was refused leave and he still has 10 years of his sentence to run.
Reza Shahabi, treasurer of the Union of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs United Bus Company was in April 2012 sentenced
to five years in prison for “gathering and colluding against state security” and one year for “spreading propaganda against the system”. He was also banned from union activity for a further five years. This, after having already served 22 months for peaceful union activities. In May 2012, he underwent an operation on his spine and was recommended to rest for three months by his doctor, a recommendation which was ignored by the prison authorities who sent him back to prison. In protest against his imprisonment, abuse by the prison guards and lack of medical attention, Mr. Shahabi went on hunger strike in December 2012. In January 2013, he was finally released on a five-day medical leave on the grounds of his deteriorating medical condition. Mr. Shahabi’s case received world wide attention. Amnesty International has designated him a prisoner of conscience and has called for his immediate and unconditional release. The International Transport Workers’ Federation has also demanded unconditional release of Mr. Shahabi and other trade unionists. Shakrokh Zamani and Reza Shahabi are two trade unionists imprisoned, purely for their beliefs and trade union activities.
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