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LABOUR-IRAN: Sugar Industry Strikes Bespeak Bitter Conditions

Kimia Sanati

TEHRAN, Nov 9 2007 (IPS) - Labour protests and strikes, though firmly suppressed in Iran, are gaining momentum as failure to manage the frail economic structure pushes more and more state-owned factories and private enterprises into bankruptcy.

Alongside, hopes of any improvement in the living standards of the impoverished, as promised by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, lie shattered with inflation rates topping 17 percent.

The government-owned Haft Tappeh Cane Sugar Agro-Industrial Company in southwestern Khuzistan province near the city of Shush is one of the worst hit by the government’s own economic policies. Established 47 years ago, the company has now accumulated debts amounting to 90 million US dollars and, for the past two years, has not been able to pay wages to its workers on a regular basis.

The company’s failure to pay workers’ wages, the management’s decision to sell company land and other property as well as a threat to dismiss 2,000 of the 5,000 employees led to an extensive two-week strike late September and early October. This was the 16th time in two years that the workers had to resort to strikes according to a petition they sent to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

More than 2,500 of the company’s workers who participated in the most recent strike marched out of the company premises and demonstrated in front of the Shush city governor’s office, sometimes even blocking the road to the city.

Riot police was dispatched to the area to contain the angry workers and there were clashes on several occasions. Several workers’ leaders were arrested by security police and some are still in detention. A number of workers were injured during the encounters.

On Oct. 16 workers put a conditional end to their strike and demonstrations after they were promised some of their back wages. The company’s managing director was dismissed as demanded by the strikers.

In a statement released at the end of the strike, the workers demanded that the Islamic labour council of the company be liquidated. ‘’We have the right to form our own unions”, the strikers said in the statement.

“Many workers consider the Islamic labour councils, virtually the only existing labour bodies with any resemblance to a real union, as government puppets and patsies. In spite of the recognition in the constitution of workers’ right to form their unions the state has always suppressed all their attempts to form independent unions,” a labour activist in Tehran told IPS on the condition of anonymity.

“Tehran Public Transportation Workers Union that helped organise the Public Transportation Company workers’ strike in the capital in December 2005 has been refused recognition for many years. Two of the leaders of the union, namely, Mansour Osanlou and Ebrahim Madadi, have recently begun serving five year and two year prison sentences for ‘taking action against national security’ and ‘propaganda against the system’. Osanlou is even in danger of losing his eyesight because of deprivation of proper medical care in prison,” he said.

In a petition sent to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) petitioners requested the body to send its representatives to Iran to negotiate their case with the Iranian government.

The workers had proposed to the government to resolve the state-owned company’s past tax debts and its debts for gas, electricity, etc. to save it from bankruptcy, but that solution was turned down by the government thanks to the influence of a ‘sugar importing mafia’, the petition said.

The petitioners also informed ILO that the Iranian government prevents them from forming their own unions in spite of international labour laws to which Iran is a signatory and that workers representatives are faced with threats of being fired and imprisoned.

“Thanks to the Internet the news of the Haft Tappeh strike spread more quickly although the media were almost totally silent for the fear of being closed. The regime is very much afraid of such incidents becoming public knowledge. Abolfazl Abedini, a local freelance journalist who had dared to give interviews to foreign radios about the strike, was arrested to stop the coverage of the strike,” the labor activist in Tehran told IPS.

“In addition to various labour groups the Union of Tehran Public Transportation Company Workers and a group of workers of Iran Khodro (Iran’s largest auto-making company) were quick to come up with support for the Haft Tappeh strikers,” he said.

“The government retreated rather quickly this time, probably to stop the strike spreading to other places but also because there was a danger of the labour issue turning into an ethnic one. The province sits on oil and yet the largely Arab population is deprived and poor,” he added.

It is widely believed that excessive import of sugar, allowed and encouraged by the government during the past two years, is one of the main reasons for Haft Tappeh Agro-Industrial Company’s financial problems.

Iran normally imports a maximum of 700,000 tons of sugar annually to top up its domestic production of around 1.2 million thousand tons to meet a consumption level of 1.9 m tons.

Nevertheless nearly three million tons of sugar has been imported in the past 18 months according to the customs in Iran.

The government’s own trading organisation which has the responsibility of regulating the market was responsible for importing one million tons of the total three million tons of sugar, presumably in anticipation of international sanctions, and the rest was imported by the private sector.

The government failure to regulate tariffs for sugar importation has caused reduction of domestic production and stagnancy in the market as well as jeopardising national plans to reach self-sufficiency in sugar production, the Judiciary’s General Inspection Organisation (GIO) warned in a report released in September 2007.

“The government cutback raw sugar import tariffs from 130 percent to nil. The decision prompted the huge imports but this has not helped consumers. The difference between the consumer price of around 7.5 dollars per kilo and the wholesale prices of around five dollars has, however, added billions to the sugar importers’ wealth as even admitted by GIO,” an economic analyst in Tehran told IPS.

“The national sugar refining industry and its related agricultural sector are on the brink of total bankruptcy. The market is saturated and most sugar refining factories have their whole annual yield stocked in their stores so there is no room for more production. They can’t pay the wages of the workers or their debts to farmers who have had to decrease cultivation of sugar beet and cane by around 30 percent this year,” he said.

“In spite of soaring oil prices the economy is doing badly and the working class is feeling the bite. As admitted by a parliament labour representative there are now over 200,000 workers who have not been paid for months or even years. This can prove a potential time bomb for the government if the problems are not addressed urgently,” he added.

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