“Striking for their basic legitimate rights and nothing else!”

On recent (June 2021) industrial actions by project workers in Iran’s oil industry…

Maziyar Gilani-Nejad, Secretary of the Union of Metalworkers and Mechanics of Iran (UMMI) is interviewed by “Andisheh-Nou”- Iranian News Weblog

Strikes, protest rallies, and workers’ marches have in recent years been the usual hallmarks and characteristics of discontent for a large section of Iranian society. And, over recent days, there have been numerous reports on social media networks of widespread industrial actions by workers at factories and subcontracting projects in the country’s oil, gas, and petrochemical sector – including walkouts by thousands of project workers. In order to inform its readers and the public about these recent developments, “Andisheh-Nou” invited Mr. Maziyar Gilani-Nejad, Secretary of the Union of Metalworkers and Mechanics of Iran (UMMI), to answer some questions about these strikes and provide a clearer picture of what is happening there given his insider knowledge of the facts on the ground.


Andisheh Nou (AN): In recent days, there have been reports in the news as well as the UMMI’s publications of the beginning of a number of workers’ strikes protesting against lawlessness [lack of regulation] in the oil, gas, and petrochemical sector; workers’ paltry wage levels; and the hardship workers endure as a result. What are the main goals and demands of the oil industry project and contract workers in these recent strikes?

Maziyar Gilaninejhad (MGN):  As stated in the announcements of the UMMI, the main demands of the workers are as follows:

1- All employers are obliged to implement the rightful demand for a standard rotation of 20 working days onsite followed by 10 days of commensurate paid leave.

2- Insurance contributions must be based on the actual job titles and not capped at the level of an unskilled worker.

3- Wages must be paid monthly and without delay.

4- A copy of the employment contract on official headed paper, signed and sealed, must be handed to the respective employee.

5- Payments for works with duration of one month or less should be calculated according to the overhaul rate.

6- Workers also demand payment of bonuses and benefits, transportation costs, and child benefits; proper air-conditioning; an end to low-quality and repetitive meals; and an improvement of hygiene and sanitation in the dormitories.

Unfortunately, employers have been reluctant to pay wages in compliance with the employment law for years now – forcing workers to exercise caution and try to protect themselves and their families in the face of these scams. For example, the employment law states that the employer must pay a worker’s wage on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Nowhere does it state that the employer can delay the worker’s wages for three months plus or suddenly disappear having made no payment. In such cases, workers and their representatives have tried everything from direct correspondences, to requests to meet with their respective parliamentary representatives but to no avail.

A-N: Similar industrial actions took place in August last year. Are these new protest movements a continuation of those strikes? Did the employers not accept the workers’ demands about wages and working conditions after those several weeks of strike action?

MGN: These are indeed the continuation of last year’s strikes. Last year, we asked for wage increases in line with a list of demands in our campaign and were, to some extent, successful in getting the wages according to the list. However, this is not just about wage levels. We face other issues, such as wage arrears, insurance contributions for skilled workers capped at the level of unskilled worker, senior workers on minimum salaries, unsanitary workers’ living quarters infested with bed bugs, poor-quality food, lack of sanitary provision in the bathrooms and substandard health and safety conditions in the workplace – all of which are part of the employment package. Contractors [labour brokers] charge the employer for providing first-class air-conditioned minibuses yet transport the workers in World War II type minibuses. The conditions are inhumane with temperatures clocking 55 degrees centigrade in the province of Khuzestan. Since last year, employers have gradually been trying to claw back what we had achieved. And, this year, when we announced that employers should raise salaries by 40 percent, – in line with Ministry of Employment guidance – we faced sacking and insults directed at our campaign and union. What you now see is the outcome of those insults and the failure to adhere to previously-reached agreements by the employers.

A-N: Given that government institutions do not recognise independent trade unions and their activities, how, why, and when did these strikes begin?

MGN: Protests are formed wherever there is injustice and lawlessness. It is true that government institutions do not recognise us, but we take credit and heart from our own activities and the achievements of the workers. If you only take a look at the news on our union’s website, you will see that protests against employers’ misconduct began earlier this year. However, protests against the contracting out of projects and the introduction of labour brokers – who take work from the oil company and delegate it on to smaller firms [a parasitic role that serves to essentially break or obfuscate the direct line of accountability between employer and employee] – began in the early 1990s. In fact, the oil company and the Ministry of Employment give a portion of the real wages owed to the worker to companies [labour brokers] that do nothing for the project and only accept the contract, skim some of the payment and then delegate the work on – thus depriving the workers of that which is rightfully due to them.

A-N: What have been the reactions so far of the labour brokers; the oil, gas, and petrochemical companies; and the government? Have the local police showed any reaction?

MGN: So far, there are no reports of any police involvement anywhere. Of course, workers do not want to work in these unfavourable conditions and so they calmly leave the projects. Therefore, there is no reason for the police to intervene. The oil company says it has nothing to do with them and that the issues must be resolved between the workers and contractors [labour brokers]. These employers [labour brokers] have done nothing but threaten and fire the workers.

A-N: How do you assess the important factors in organising such industrial actions in an industry [oil industry] so wide and varied in terms of work-types and professions? How do you evaluate the coordination of the campaign, noting the geographical spread of strike locations (e.g. Abadan, Qeshm, Tehran, Isfahan, Bushehr, Gachsaran, and Bidboland) and how important has this been?

MGN: Peaceful protest against the violation of workers’ rights is a natural reaction and is recognised by all international laws, including the constitution and employment laws of our country. We hope that such civil protests will persuade the authorities and the government to find a reasonable and effective way to respond to the demands of the workers and that they respond positively and in active accordance with the respective ILO conventions on trade union structures and workers’ rights. This will solve many problems in the workplace. One of the advantages of project work is that a worker maybe involved on several projects in different locations throughout Iran in a given year. Well, along with the training that active workers will undergo, this is the best opportunity to establish contacts and links with other workers. They take advantage of this situation and, over time, become comrades and friends; they share their problems; and, finally, after giving each other their contact details, they keep in touch. After the project is finished, one goes to Qeshm, one to Urmia, and the cycle continues until the point at which one worker will be networked with dozens of others working on different projects and in different locations. They inform each other and this facilitates industry-wide coordination.

A-N: At present, it is chiefly the project and contract workers and toilers that are participating in these strikes. Can permanent and full-time workers and employees of the oil, gas, and petrochemical companies also join the movement? And, do they also have common demands with the strikers?

MGN: Our full-time permanently employed comrades in the oil company, like all workers, are also on low wages and have protested several times since the beginning of the year. Of course, it would be great if coordination could take place between them and the project workers. They have in fact announced that they intend to go on strike on 30 June 2021.

A-N: What are your predictions about the new government that will be formed by Mr. Ebrahim Raisi, the likely changes, and the promises made to the workers in the June 2021 presidential election campaign? Could it be that the usual way in which the government and the employers treat the working-class changes in their favour?

MGN: The experience of the country’s toilers over the past decades has been that government administrations come and go. But the corrupt economic system in Iran has never changed. In fact, we have learned to pay more attention to the actions of the officials rather than their election campaign promises. As the proverb goes: “A good beginning makes a good ending”. According to the Shargh newspaper on 20 June 2021, the initial speeches given and steps taken in Mr. Raisi’s election campaign were to give reassurances to the stock market and the private sector of the economy. According to the same paper, Mr. Raisi stated in a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce that: “The economy should be left to the private sector. Anything that slows down the private sector must be eliminated”. These are words that will serve to encourage people in the private sector. Meanwhile, the country’s workers are demanding that the government, in its first steps, address the catastrophic living and working conditions of the working people and to take basic steps without delay to address the consequences of privatisation and endemic corruption, as well as the need to fill the country’s industrial production capacity.

When, in our country, since the presidency of Mr. Rafsanjani, the prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been accepted and adopted without hesitation or interruption, leading to the destruction of our economy, its dependence on imports, and the emergence of a mafia that overshadows all our affairs from politics, culture, economy to society’s moral values, as well as the tarnishing and destruction of everything under the yolk of neo-liberalism… What power can challenge this mafia? During the recent election debates, it became clear that no one dared to announce the names of the 11 mega-debtors to the banks. The gears of this system crush anyone who stands in its way. Let me give you an example… Last year, during the August protests, we wrote a letter to the Oil Ministry, the Ministry of Employment, the Inspector General, the Judiciary, the Speaker of Parliament, and the Supreme Leader, expressing our concerns and issues. Only the Supreme Leader omitted to make any response to our letter. However, it is interesting to note that when our letter arrived at the local Employment Department in Bushehr, their inspectors were dispatched to the petrochemical plants and refineries. The gates were closed to the inspectors and they were not admitted inside. The judiciary then intervened. Yet the gates still did not open. Fast forward to this year, on Wednesday 9 June, and a meeting was held in the Bushehr Governor’s Office involving the governor of Assaluyeh industrial zone; a representative of the Judiciary; the advisor to the Employment Secretary, Dr. Sangsari; and a representative of the Bushehr Employment Office. Once again, they did not go anywhere and the petrochemical companies refused to open their doors to inspectors sent by the Employment Office and even demanded that the Employment Office should delegate the safety and technical inspections to the security guards of the plants. That means, gentlemen, “The fox smells its own lair first!” This is just a small example of a mafia zealously guarding its turf.

A-N: How can the international organisations, trade unions, and Iran’s progressive forces help advance the goals of the Iranian workers’ strikes and their success?

MGN: All Iranian people, wherever they are, can help the striking project workers. Our journalist friends and those with access to social media can alert their communities to these injustices by publishing our news. By uniting with us and giving coverage to our legitimate demands, the trade unions can send a clear and unequivocal message to the supporters and agents of neo-liberalism that “every worker is the brother of another worker and accompanies him in joy and sorrow”. Solidarity at regional, national, and international levels can force the authorities to realise that they must pay the workers their rightful dues. It is a fact that such solidarity is only natural and has a great effect on motivating workers to insist upon the realisation of their legal rights.

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