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LABOUR-IRAN: May Day Rally Reveals Deep Discontent

Kimia Sanati

TEHRAN, May 2 2007 (IPS) - Deep discontent with unemployment, low wages, shortcomings in labour laws and suppression of workers&#39 unions were all too visible at the well-attended May Day rally at Tehran&#39s Shiroudi Stadium.

Among other demands, thousands of workers called for the resignation of Mohammad Jahromi, hard line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad&#39s Labour Minister.

Permission to hold the rally was granted only a day before the event. The organisers, mainly the ‘Worker House&#39 union and the Islamic Labour Party, concerned by threats of violence, repeatedly called on the workers to limit their chanting to trade demands.

There were repressive measures. Mansour Osanlou, leader of Iran&#39s Public Transportation Workers&#39 Union, was accosted at a metro station by plainclothesmen and badly beaten up, but managed to escape. He has since filed a petition with the Citizenship Rights Court protesting that his life was in danger.

Osanlou has repeatedly been arrested since a bus drivers&#39 strike in Tehran over a year ago which was harshly suppressed and over a thousand bus drivers and their family members arrested. He was prevented from speaking at a students&#39 gathering at Tehran University on Monday.

The protesting workers demanded job security and abolition of temporary employment contracts which deprive them of their basic labour rights, freedom to form unions and other workers&#39 organisations and the right to strike. They chanted slogans at the rally against the labour minister, the government and Iran&#39s parliament in spite of organisers&#39 efforts to quieten them.

A number of workers also raised anti-capitalist slogans and marched towards a nearby square. The protesting workers clashed with police along the way as they tried to disperse workers and onlookers, who at times joined the protestors, Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA) reported.

A coffin was carried on the shoulders of some workers to the stadium. ‘Labour Laws Kill Workers&#39 and ‘Last Warning to Jahromi&#39 were written on the black cloth covering the coffin, according to the agency reports.

Alireza Mahjoub, secretary general of the Worker House and a former member of Iranian parliament, addressed the rally criticising the government&#39s privatisation policies which he said have led certain industries, the textile industry in particular, to the brink of bankruptcy.

Mahjoub also criticised government policies on setting minimum wages and called on workers to unite, but a group of Public Transportation Workers&#39 Union chanted slogans against him, the agency reported.

The union, its leaders and members have been under great pressure from authorities since a strike more than a year ago that was immediately suppressed.

Even 20 months after the Ahmadinejad government took over from reformist Mohammad Khatami with promises of improving people&#39s economic conditions, more and more workers have been laid off, many small and big factories have gone bankrupt, and pressure on workers&#39 unions and activists has increased, making workers&#39 conditions worse than before.

The government has set the minimum wages for the current Iranian fiscal year beginning Mar. 21 at 180,000 Rials (just over 300 US dollars), while according to the government statistics the poverty line for a family of four living in larger cities is around 500 dollars.

Nearly 10 million Iranians now live under the poverty line and there are around four million unemployed. Inflation is estimated to be around 20 percent but the official government figures set it at 13 percent.

"Many factories, both government and private sector owned, have not even been able to pay their workers&#39 wages for many months or laid off workers in big numbers. Nearly 300 workers of Behshahr textile factory for example haven&#39t received any wages for nearly three years," a labour activist told IPS on the condition of anonymity.

"Even with full payment, workers&#39 wages can&#39t meet the minimum requirements of a decent living. There are so many workers who have to work for wages even below the minimum the government has set just to survive," he said.

"The government forcefully suppresses any protests by workers. Just over a year ago Tehran&#39s public transportation workers went on strike demanding better wages. The government&#39s response was to violently attack them. Bus drivers and union leaders are being constantly harassed and put in prison since then," he added.

The news of the rally was overlooked by Iran&#39s mostly hard line, conservative, government-run or authorised news agencies leaving it to the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA) to provide almost exclusive coverage.

Fearing a ban, Iranian media are generally reluctant to touch on issues related to workers, students and women which are now posing the greatest challenge to the system.

A leading reformist news agency affiliated to the Islamic Labour Party and the Worker House, ILNA has recently been boycotted by the government. ILNA reporters are not allowed to attend the President&#39s meetings with the press or cover certain ministries. "We are not allowed to report the government&#39s words. We can, however, (convey) the people&#39s voice," the news agency said in a statement released Apr. 29.

Negligence of worker rights and demands, wrong policies and bad management could lead to a chasm between workers and the system. "This should never happen," an editorial in ‘Etemad Melli&#39, the mouthpiece of the reformist National Trust Party said on Tuesday.

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