Friday , 12 April 2024

Iran Labor Protest Uptick Coincides With Annual Minimum Wage Deliberations

VOA – Iran is seeing an uptick in labor protests coinciding with annual deliberations on raising the minimum wage to keep up with increases in living costs, yet the actions have elicited no violent government crackdown such as the one that crushed a women’s rights movement one year ago.

One of the Islamic republic’s most sustained labor protests of recent weeks involves striking workers of the Iran National Steel Industrial Group (INSIG) in the southwestern city of Ahvaz.

A Telegram channel affiliated with the workers posted photos and videos appearing to show dozens of them gathering outside their steel plant from Tuesday to Thursday to denounce what they see as broken management promises to improve their working conditions and the suspensions of several of their colleagues.

In one video appearing to show a protest march Tuesday, men wearing INSIG uniforms chanted: “neither threats nor prison are effective anymore.”

VOA could not verify the images independently because it is barred from operating inside Iran.

Other online reports and images reviewed by VOA Persian indicated that telecom company retirees gathered in at least 10 provinces Monday to complain about the denial of pension rights. They also chanted slogans and held signs against corruption and oppression in the financial system.

Iran typically sees groups of workers and retirees staging public rallies to press their demands in the final month of the Persian year that ends March 19. That is when the Islamic republic’s Supreme Labor Council makes its final decision on the minimum wage for the new Persian year.

The council includes representatives of the Iranian labor ministry, employers and workers chosen by the government-affiliated Islamic Labor Council. The current minimum wage for most workers in Iran is about $160 a month.

Years of rapidly rising consumer prices and a weak economy hobbled by Western sanctions and government corruption and mismanagement have pushed many Iranians into poverty. The IMF has estimated Iran’s inflation rate at 47% and GDP growth at 3% for 2023.

The latest small-scale protests by Iranian workers and retirees frustrated by those poor economic conditions have not triggered a violent government crackdown. Iran’s Islamist rulers killed hundreds of demonstrators and arrested thousands of others in suppressing a monthslong nationwide women’s rights protest movement that began in September 2022.

American University sociology professor and Iran observer Jessica Emami discussed the factors underlying the labor protests in this week’s edition of VOA’s Flashpoint Iran podcast.

The following transcript of Emami’s Feb. 14 interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: What kinds of labor protests have you been tracking in Iran?

Jessica Emami, American University: Most of the time, you see people gathering with signs in front of government buildings. To the degree that they can do that without getting badly arrested, they will do that. The problem is, especially with schoolteachers, that they get arrested so frequently. It has almost become like a ‘bail-industrial complex’ in which people get arrested and then get out on bail. Once you are out on bail, it is like being on parole. There have been teachers in schools working with those little electronic bands around their ankles. So, it is very difficult for them.

[Labor protests] culminate usually in May because of May Day. The Iranian government always keeps an eye out for that and becomes more strict as May Day approaches.

VOA: Iranian state media have been covering some of these labor protests. Why do Iranian authorities seem to tolerate this activity on some level?

Emami: The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was pushed forward to some degree by workers’ groups. And what really brought down the former government of the shah was work stoppages.

The reason [Iran’s Islamist rulers] tolerate the protests is because this government was born out of strikes, and the Iranian people really believe in workers’ rights. So, the government has to come across as saying, ‘Okay, we believe in workers’ rights.’ But Iran’s leaders are so terrified that the strikes will become political and more about bringing down the regime, that that is when they start mass arresting and beating up people in jail and things like that.

VOA: Since the outbreak of Iran’s Woman Life Freedom protest movement, there does not appear to have been any direct connection between workers who gather to complain about wages and benefits and the many Iranians protesting for more women’s rights. Why is that?

Emami: I believe that the Woman Life Freedom movement was born out of Generation Z. And Gen Z is really the up-and-coming generation that terrifies the regime. They want secularism, they want gender equality. They want things that they were not born with, but they know that Iran had those things before. And they actually are the ones to watch. They have an unemployment rate of about 25%, even though many are super educated. And as we have seen, the way they fight back is by going to the streets in groups. They do not do workers-style protests.

My impression is that a lot of the workers’ protests come out of a culture of the 1979 revolution. They really just want to have their workers’ rights restored. They want to make a living, but they are not trying to topple the government.

I think where the government’s fear comes, as it should, is from Gen Z and anyone under age 40. The regime really has its eye on those people.

VOA: Do you see any prospect of the older generation of workers joining forces with the younger Gen Z activists who are more about regime change?

Emami: I think that will only happen if we come to a tipping point where it is inevitable, and then there is going to be an avalanche. But until then, people who have spent their whole life working and just want to make their life livable — I do not see them joining in until there is a tipping point.

It does not mean that a tipping point is not close by. I think it is. But for now, those two movements seem to have a little bit of separation in between them. You can see it when you look at, for example, the retirees. They are silver-haired, and they are very organized. But they are not chanting ‘death to the dictator’ like the Gen Z people are. They are not setting tires on fire. There is going to be a cleavage between those two groups until there is a momentum and a tipping point.