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Workers in Iran could be the new face of opposition

Last summer, I listened as the owner of a small car-parts factory near Isfahan complained about the growing problems facing his business. Cheap Chinese imports took up most of the market space. The government had introduced policies to increase workers’ insurance, promising to pay the difference, but had failed to do so. In the end, he explained, many struggling factories had to resort to mass layoffs and closure.

Factories have been plagued by such problems over the past year. The number of out of work workers has doubled in that time and many went without pay for months. Two days before Labor Day, 11 coalitions of workers issued a statement saying they would be come to the streets on Saturday in protest.

“The monthly salary of a worker is about $300 per month, that is if they would be lucky enough to have a job. How could a worker live with this salary when in most cases monthly rents alone are $500?” asked Mehdi Kouhestaninejad, formerly responsible for workers and union affairs in the Middle East and Asia through the International Department of the Canadian Congress. Kouhestaninejad said the so-called privatization of many major factories has created a very complex situation.

“The biggest employer at the moment is the government, all those private owners are part of the government, either from the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards or their affiliated, and all the policies the government makes directly affects those workers,” he said.

The wave of mass layoffs has made even the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei anxious. In a speech on Wednesday Khamenei hinted at the issue: “Some people buy factories ignoring the laws and then sell them for more profits, leaving scores of workers unemployed. Government officials must be careful about this trend,” he said.

Opposition leader Mir Housein Mousavi on the other hand issued a video statement on Thursday and asked workers and teachers to join the Green Movement: “All your problems are our problems. If you don’t have the freedom to create unions and ask for your right, we have the same problem. Newspapers and political parties get shut down” he said, referring to the two Reformists parties that were shut down recently. “You can’t run a country with guns and weapons,” he added. Mehdi Karoubi, the other major opposition leader also issued a statement on Friday saying that the Reformists support workers and farmers.

Meanwhile, the government has been holding “Workers Appreciation” ceremonies — one of those fill-in-the-blank appreciation days, a usual affair in Iran when things aren’t going well. For example last summer while scores of journalists were taken to Evin prison, Tehran highways were lined with banners proudly advertising the “Journalists Appreciation Day.”

Iran, Labor Day

A poster by Saghar Pejman. It reads: Labor Day. May 1.