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Iranian workers strike amid worsening economy, deadly coronavirus crisis

Workers Day protests in Iran (Armin Karami/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Amid crushing economic conditions, demonstrations and strikes by workers have sprung up in Iran recently over unpaid wages and poor working conditions.

Factory and city employees, coal miners, as well as health-care workers are among those who have been protesting in Iran in recent weeks.

Many say they have not received their wages for months while others have complained about a lack of job security and difficult conditions.

“July 29 – Shush, southwest #Iran Employees of the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Co. continue their strike & protests for the 45th consecutive day, emphasizing they will continue until they receive their delayed paychecks & other demands are met.#IranProtests2020,” People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) tweeted.

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The protests come despite a deadly coronavirus pandemic that has killed at least 16,000 and infected nearly 300,000 in Iran, numbers that are believed by many to be underreported.

The country has in recent weeks faced a surge in COVID-19 fatalities resulting in increased calls on Iranians to respect hygiene and social-distancing protocols. Some 235 deaths and 2,667 new infections were reported on July 28.

Crippling U.S. sanctions since 2018 aggravated by the coronavirus crisis have greatly weakened Iran’s state-managed economy, leading to record lows for the national currency and high inflation.

On July 27, a group of municipal workers gathered outside the city council in the southwestern city of Yasuj to announce that they had not received their paychecks in the past nine months, reports said.

 

That protest was the latest in a wave of gatherings and strikes by municipal workers and contractors in several cities, including Tabriz, Dezful, Khoramabad, and Ahvaz.

On July 26, a group of contractors for the Health Ministry protested outside parliament while complaining about a lack of job security, poor insurance policies, and low salaries, Iranian media reported.

One of the protesters told the semiofficial Fars news agency that he had not received a raise for the past three years.

Another protester said he and his colleagues involved in the fight against COVID-19 have received only a 15 percent pay raise while those with permanent contracts were given a 50 percent raise.

At least 140 health-care workers battling the coronavirus since the first cases were announced in February have lost their lives to COVID-19.

In the early days of the pandemic, many complained about shortages of personal protective gear. Officials have also warned that hospital staff and other health-care workers are being exhausted by the deadly pandemic in Iran, which is the hardest hit country in the Middle East.

A protest was held over the weekend by contractors at Beheshti Hospital in Shiraz, where protesters said they have not receive a 50 percent pay raise like their colleagues with official contracts. They accused officials of making false promises.

In May, a group of nurses working in hospitals in Gilan Province — one of epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country — gathered in front of the Health Ministry in Tehran to protest their short-term contracts. The ministry employs nurses based on 89-day contracts to avoid greater obligations to workers under long-term contracts of 90 days or more.

A protest by nurses and medical staff also took place in Isfahan against what demonstrators called “discrimination in payments and tariffs in Iran’s health system.”

Late last month, workers at the Aminyar Faryab chromite mine in the southeastern province of Kerman held a protest and warned they would stop working to protest job insecurity, unpaid wages, and poor working conditions.

“We make a living by working in the mine. We cannot protest every month because our demands have not been met,” one protester said.

The miners have held several protests since May.

String Of Unrest

Protests the same month by several thousand coal miners were also reported in the province of Kerman. The workers called for higher wages and long-term contracts while also opposing the privatization of the mines.

This labor unrest is only one portion of the numerous protests and strikes that have occurred in the past two years involving truck drivers, teachers, and steel workers.

Meanwhile, employees at the Haft Tapeh sugar factory in the southwestern city of Shush have been on strike for nearly 50 days demanding unpaid wages, a renewal of their social-security benefits, and the return of workers fired for protesting, including prominent activist Esmail Bakhshi, who has been detained several times in recent months.

The factory, which was privatized in 2015, has more than 5,000 workers, several hundred of which are believed to be taking part in the strikes.

The value of the national currency has also been plunging while the prices of goods, including food staples have skyrocketed.

Unemployment is also running high with the coronavirus pandemic leading to factory and shop shutdowns as well as layoffs.

The minimum monthly wage of workers is as meager as $80 while a family of three needs at least $300 per month to cover the basic costs of living, according to Faramarz Tofighi, the chairman of the wages committee of the Association of Islamic Labor Councils.

Authorities have also warned recently about possible street riots amid the spiraling inflation and deterioration of the economy.

The string of unrest among workers is causing pressure to mount on Iran’s Islamic government, which in November used lethal force against protesters on city streets throughout the country angry over a sudden rise in the price of gasoline. Many repeated chants against top leaders and at least hundreds are estimated to have been killed.

Meanwhile, dozens of labor activists have been detained in the past two years while some have been sentenced to prison and others have received lashes as such protests often come at a high personal price.