The text below is an interview conducted with a leader of a recently-formed labor organization at the sprawling Isfahan Steel Factory. Iran Labor Report has translated this highly informative interview for the benefit of our English-speaking readers. (Original Source: Radio Farda)
Translation: Iran Labor Report
Question: A group of workers at Isfahan Steel have set up an ad hoc council for the workers there. What were the reasons for this and why wasn’t it done before?
Answer: A host of domestic and international factors led us to the conviction that a council was badly needed. In the international arena, the rightward shift in economic thinking has become dominant. In our country, following the eight-year war with Iraq, the economic restructuring of the construction period, privatizations, axing of subsidies, etc, the same policy prescriptions were adopted and augmented.
We are of the opinion that the first to take the brunt of these policies are the laboring classes and the poor. Among the byproducts of economic liberalization and integration to the world economy for our weak and semi-autarkic economy could be counted the following: the unbridled rule of capital and employers; a gaping class divide; polarization of the society; a drop in the living standards; lowering of the wages; lack of job security and countless other problems.
While today the state feels it necessary to protect the steel industry against the slump and the financial crisis, with the onset of privatization, this industry, just as in ‘Arak Aluminum’, will face massive layoffs from the management of the newly-privatized companies, or in a best-case scenario, workers would have to go without pay for months.
We realize that sooner or later, the steel industry will be subjected to privatization. Therefore, we are intent on organizing the workforce before that takes place. It is easy to understand why: the steel sector wouldn’t be terribly profitable for the private sector and their first step is bound to be slashing the wages and the benefits of workers or restructuring the labor force.
On the other hand, the temporary workers and those employed by the sub-contracting firms, as is often the case in the private sector, are really in terrible straits; a situation which is made even worse by the crisis in the steel industry. For months, the wages of the workers in the sub-contracting firms have been paid after long delays.
Under the circumstances, resorting to strikes inevitably comes up against threats, suspension, dismissal and use of scabs. Clearly, as there is no bright spot on the horizon for the steel sector, one could expect to see long delays in payment of wages for both the permanent-contracted and temporary-contracted workers.
All these, plus the inalienability of workers’ right to organize, led us to the conclusion that we had to take the preliminary steps.
Earlier, we had come to appreciate the need for such a decision but decided to make the move at this particular juncture because the situation, as far as its acceptance and support of unions among workers, seems to cohere more now.
The economic decline is creating favorable conditions for an upsurge in labor activity; for recognizing the necessity of organizing; and for fostering a sense of class solidarity amongst workers, which in normal circumstances may be hard to achieve thanks to discrimination or divergent interests (among workers) where you may see conflicts and even mutual animosity among them.
On the other hand, given the high level of activism among the other social classes at present [referring to the ongoing protest movement—ILR], we deemed it a propitious moment to take action.
Question: How are the conditions for workers employed in Isfahan Steel as far as wages, insurance, job security?
Answer: In general, steel workers fall in three groups: the permanent employees, the temporary-contracted workers, and those employed with the sub-contracting firms.
The wages and benefits of about 8,000 permanent workers are based on the guidelines set down by the Ministry of Industry– they are outside the country’s labor law. The base salary for these workers is $400 per month. On the average, based on the company’s own performance, they are eligible to get bonuses above $200 a year. Also, throughout a lifetime of employment, every permanent worker is paid $10,000 in housing loans and $7,000 in emergency loans. (One can also ask for further loans, once 4/5 of outstanding loans have been paid off.)
Other than this, anywhere between $300 to $400 worth of consumer goods are delivered in coupon form to permanent workers. Vacation packages and pilgrimage tours are also offered to workers, once their turn comes up.
The terms for the temporary-contracted workers were put in place early this (Persian) year and on the eve of the presidential election. According to this, starting in June, the workers employed by the Steel Company’s subcontractors, which kind of played the role of middleman, signed their contracts directly and in accordance to the labor law; meaning that the subcontracting firms were eliminated from the scene. We could say they obtained better job security and their wages were paid on time. However, their salaries have dropped by $40 to $100 across the board.
The reason for this drop is that beside their base salary, the workers only receive the “shift” benefits currently (such as working in evening and graveyard shifts—ILR) while such benefits applying to those having an espouse and children, as well as the so-called “hardship” benefits, etc have been all terminated. In some instances, even their base salaries have been affected. Their contract is only 6-months-long. Also, the overtime cap for them which used to be unlimited before is now set at 45 hours. These workers, used to make up for their low pay by taking lots of overtime before. They number around 3,200 people.
The workers in the contracting companies are of two types. One group are those based on project-specific operations. These are mostly working with the so-called “steel stabilization project”. These workers have not been paid for 4 to 6 months. Further, most of them do not have any contracts per se with the subcontractors. Rather, they are employed by subcontracting individuals, meaning that the firms feel no particular obligation towards them. Of course, this is the case with just about most project-based workers in Iran.
The second group are those working in the subcontracting firms which operate in independence at the steel complex. These companies sell most of their products to Isfahan Steel. They also provide various types of service to it. For example, the company “Nasouz Azar” manufactures heat-resistant bricks. “Taban Nirou” supervises and repairs the electrical equipment at the plant, etc.
Thanks to the interdependence of these units with Isfahan Steel, financial crisis at the mother company quickly spreads to the others like contagion. It is akin to saying once it catches cold, they catch pneumonia.
The workers’ contracts in these companies are about three-months-long—of course this doesn’t mean there are no one-month or one-year contracts. In general, aside from a handful of companies such as “Merat Poulad”, “Taban Nirou” and “Nasouz Azar” where workers enjoy better wages and benefits and get some bonuses and their wages are not postponed for more than a month at a time, the rest of the workers at the other (subcontracting) companies work with no bonuses, take very limited benefits, their wages are paid intermittently while resorting to strikes for demanding back-wages has become a common practice.
Most of these workers haven’t been paid in two to four months. As for their insurance, all the workers are insured or at least receive benefits from the Labor Office. Dismissal is generally not very difficult to do for the employer, although factory’s security section sometimes interferes and prevents this fearing workers’ unrest.
Question: How important is organizing for workers, especially workers at Isfahan Steel?
Answer: In our opinion, sooner or later, waves of economic liberalization will arrive at our door and Iranian economy will march headlong to integration with the global economy. With this horizon and considering the response I tried to outline to the above questions, the working class will almost certainly face much tougher conditions in future, although both currently and previously, the workers have generally been under strain from all manner of political, social or economic changes while benefiting next to zero from them.
In this situation, organizing will be literally more important than your daily bread since without it, there can be scant hope of earning enough to eat…Besides, without organizing the workers, we can’t hope to achieve a full-blown democracy.
In our opinion, independent working class organizations are the very bedrock of any democracy since it is just the workers that through their power to go on strike and immobilize economies can be a bulwark of opposition against the states’ assaults on civil liberties.
The organizing drive of the steel industry, if successful, can significantly impact organizing drives in the other key sectors. As steel is a pivotal industry with well over 20,000 workers employed there, their organizational successes can bring about major improvements in both their wages and working conditions.
Suffice it to say that when workers are organized, they generally achieve a higher-level status in society and capital-labor relations tend to be become more democratized.
Question: In recent months, we have been witness to strike actions at several sections in Isfahan Steel. What were their objectives and what did they achieve? The bulk of the strikes were triggered by delays in worker’s paychecks. Months of delay in receiving their due payment is creating abysmal conditions for the workers, leaving them no other routs but labor strikes.
Answer: Most strikes this year have been in protest to the delay in payment of the wages.
Several months delay in wage payments creates dire situations for the workers and strike has become the only arsenal available to the workers.
Strikes generally end in payment of one or two months of backwages to stop them from spreading or stopping the operations but they resume at the end of the month when wages are again not being paid. Of course, there have been cases such as in “Nasouz Cheen” or “Nasouz Azar” companies where management sought aid from other companies to break the strike and forty workers lost their jobs in the process.
Question: What has been the reaction of the state to workers’ economic protests in Iran and their attempts at organizing?
Answer: It seems to us that the policy the government pursues with regard to economic protests and organizing drives is multi-layered. The government is extremely sensitive to the economic protests getting out of hand or becoming politicized. Their approach could vary depending on the cohesiveness, the numerical strength and the leadership of the workers.
In industrial parks and smaller-scale enterprises, the authorities usually show benign neglect or shirk responsibility in dealing with labor unrest while workers often fail to advance their cause thanks to their small number or lack of cohesion. In the more serious circumstances, the approach is a mixture of threats and pressure on the one side and promises and foot-dragging on the other. Sometimes, there are concessions made if there is enough resistance put up.
Of course, one shouldn’t lose sight of the differences in attitude among local officials themselves. But, by far, the biggest sensitivity is reserved towards large plants and factories—although even in these (such as in Wagon Pars, Avangan, or Ahvaz Pipe-Making) the workers’ protests don’t get very far.
Nevertheless, as labor protests have become one of the chief security concerns for the government, it has tried very hard to reduce and contain tensions..
As for the public sector, tight control and repression on one hand, and conservatism and relative accommodation of workers’ needs on the other, have detracted on protests.
What is indisputable though is that “worker organizing” is the unsurpassable line for every government in Iran. The violent treatment meted out to Tehran Bus Drivers Union and the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Workers Union attest to this fact.
But the more disturbing fact is the indifference most civil and political activists show to workers concerns. Those who haven’t devoted a single page in their multitudinous newspapers to the workers’ issues are obviously interested in the subject in so far as it benefits them in their power struggles.
Question: What do you think the prospects of workers, including Isfahan Steel workers, would be once the “subsidies rationalization law” (referring to Ahmadinejad’s plans for slashing all state subsidies to the public—ILR) goes into effect?
Answer: With the “Subsidies Rationalization Law”, we believe the plan will force millions of workers to the very edge of destitution. In addition, with increases in production costs, many industrial firms would be driven to bankruptcy or forced to close down. Unemployment would skyrocket too.
On the other hand, the high and sustained inflation rate that flows from this law, will cause a precipitous fall in living standards for both the middle class and the poor. Of course, it will also engender waves of urban riots in the shanty towns and poor neighborhoods.
On the other hand, the extreme inflation which will be result of this plan, will result in massive fall in middle and lower class purchase power. Of course, it will also cause massive riots in towns especially the lower sides and those on the edges of the cities.