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AFTER 25 years of dictatorship under the Shah of Iran, the Iranian people finally freed themselves of the shackles of the Pahlavi dynasty in the national democratic revolution of February 11 1979.
While the figurehead for the opposition to the Shah was the exiled Islamic leader Ayotollah Khomenei, the revolution had the support of a broad spectrum of democratic forces, seizing the opportunity to bring democracy to Iran at long last.
Under the shadow of the Western-inspired Iran-Iraq war, which ran from 1980-88, the theocratic elements, which were only one part of the national democratic revolution, tightened their grip on power.
In draconian purges against those who opposed the establishment of an Islamic Republic, they arrested, tortured and exiled key sections of the left, effectively driving underground any opposition to the consolidation of the grip of the theocracy.
The early years of the Islamic Republic set the tone for the ongoing record of the Iranian regime in relation to human and democratic rights in general, and the rights of political and trade union activists in particular.
It remains an appalling record, with many activists still exiled and trade union activity either restricted by the state or forced to operate clandestinely.
In spite of this situation, action is ongoing across Iran to improve the conditions of workers, with dire consequences for many of their trade union representatives.
For example, recent reports indicate that protests have been organised across the country, including teachers in the cities of Karun and Bavi and at two Iranian car-makers, Iran Khodro (IKCO) and Kerman Motor.
Parvin Mohammadi, a labour activist and the vice-president of the Free Union of Workers in Iran (FUWI), was arrested on January 29 and transferred to the Kachoui prison in Karaj.
Jafar Azimzadeh, a leading member of FUWI, was transferred to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison to serve a six-year prison term.
Mohammad Ali Zahmatkesh, a teachers’ rights activist in Shiraz, was sentenced to two years imprisonment and one year of exile. He is accused of “propaganda against the state” and “insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic.”
Amnesty International has requested the release of Iranian labour activists Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian who spoke out about the abuse and torture they suffered in detention.
They confirmed that unbearable torture was used in order to force them to make false confessions. They were subsequently rearrested in January and are at risk of severe torture.
International campaigning has strongly condemned the prison sentence imposed on Mohammad Habibi, an Iranian teacher and a member of the board of directors of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association of Tehran.
On August 4 last year, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced Habibi to 10-and-a-half years in prison. His sentence also included a prohibition on social and political activities for two years, a travel ban of two years, and 74 lashes.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has demanded the “immediate and unconditional release of Mohammad Habibi and the protection of all trade unionists from such heavy-handed security tactics which are aimed at stopping trade unionists from pursuing their legitimate activities.”
The TUC in Britain has also added its voice “calling on the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to release each and every detained trade unionist immediately” and demanding that the regime “stop oppressing and attacking workers who are simply trying to exercise their legitimate right to organise and bargain collectively for better terms and conditions at work.”
In May 2018 TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady wrote to the Iranian ambassador in Britain calling for the immediate release of Esmail Abdi, general secretary of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association, who was jailed for six years for peaceful trade union activities.
These are just some recent examples of what trade union activists in Iran can expect to face for carrying out legitimate activities in the interests of their members.
For many others the conditions of work remain unacceptable, with unpaid wages and poor work practices being commonplace.
The workers of Saman Tile Manufacturing Company in Borujerd, for example, have endured more than four years of unpaid wages.
The workers of IranPetroTech also have unpaid wages and 12 workers from this company have been laid off last month.
The workers of Sisakht municipality in the Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province have two months of unpaid wages. In addition, more than half a million construction workers are not covered by insurance in Iran.
The right of everyone to form and join the trade union of their choice is guaranteed under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which Iran has ratified.
However, Iran has historically resisted ever accepting that trade unions have a right to operate in the country.
The Islamic Republic is in breach of International Labour Organisation conventions 98 and 87, guaranteeing the rights of all workers to belong to trade unions of their choice and engage in trade union activities.
In Iran the only permitted activity is through the state-established Islamic Labour Councils.
These bodies are permitted to operate but they are not trade unions, as they are ideologically restrictive and open only to followers of Islam. Also they are tripartite organisations involving employers’ representatives and representative of the Ministry of Labour. The workers’ representatives are always in a minority.
On the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People's Rights (Codir) has renewed its call for the Iranian authorities to respect and protect the right of everyone to form and join the trade union of their choice.
Codir has called upon national and international political and trade union organisations to repeat the demand for the Iranian authorities to release every imprisoned trade unionist and stop attacking workers in Iran immediately.
Forty years on from the Iranian revolution, it is worth remembering the slogans of peace, freedom and democracy which drove the Iranian people to rid themselves of the Shah’s tyranny. These same slogans may yet come to haunt those clerical leaders who have subverted them for so long.
Resistance, in the face of the best efforts of the Islamic regime to turn Iran into a prison for those still seeking true peace, freedom and democracy, continues to give hope to the Iranian people and continues to deserve our solidarity.
Jane Green is a member of the national executive council of Codir (www.codir.net).
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