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International Union Slams Iran for Labor Violations

Akito Yoshikane

Iranian police clash with laborers during a demonstration in Tehran, Iran, in May 2007. Demonstrators protested President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government's failure to improve working conditions.

Iran has dominated plenty of news cycles this year for its nuclear ambitions, contested presidential elections and detention of American journalist Roxana Saberi. 

As if the country didn’t already have enough on its list of transgressions, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), representing 170 million workers in 157 countries, submitted a complaint to the United Nations last week for its history of labor violations.

The international union submitted its finding to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, a high-level procedure established in 2006 to evaluate human-rights violations for each of the 192 member states. 

According to the ITUC report, the details of the labor violations mirror the same problems that transpired amid the election protests surrounding Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election to a second four-year-term this June: systematic repression, arbitrary imprisonment, and denial to freely assemble.

The Review, led by a 47-member council, meets every four years; Iran will be evaluated in February. The complaint precedes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York this month, when he plans on speaking at the UN General Assembly meetings. 

Among the problems described in the ITUC complaint is a lack of independent unions and the right to organize. Current Iranian law requires workers to obtain permission to assemble and negotiate collective bargaining agreements. The only state-authorized union is the Workers Councils. 

That union is backed by the government and employers; the report alleges the it mostly serves as an institution for controlling workers right to organize. 

Despite a 1990 Labour Code that allows an independent guild society or workers representative to be appointed, the government holds a de-facto monopoly on worker representation through the Islamic Labor Council. 

The Council is overseen by the state-backed Workers House, and the report adds that any action to dismiss the representative through voting or signature collections — another tenet of the Labour Code — in favor of an independent organization is severely repressed. 

Islamic Labour Councils are largely ineffective at addressing workers’ concerns with respect to issues such as employment rights, privatization, structural adjustments, low salaries and wage arrears,” the report said.

Unsurprisingly, crackdowns are prevalent. Most union members were imprisoned for threatening national security” or promoting propaganda against the state.”

In January 2008, workers at the Haft Tapeh Sugar Complex, Iran’s only sugar refinery, collected 1,800 signatures to form an independent trade union organization. The efforts were soon rebuffed by police, Revolutionary Guards and security forces. Five workers were charged with propaganda against the government” in the Revolutionary Court, the report said.

Iran has a workforce of 24.35 million people with 27 being the median age. The 12 percent unemployment rate has the potential to further fuel the disgruntled young adult population. The problem is amplified for women, who only make up 15 percent of the formal economy.

ITUC General Secretary Guy Ryder commented that the anti-union activity in the Middle East has been rising during the financial crisis:

They cannot ignore the serious impacts of the global economic crisis, especially given that millions of jobs have already been lost. These anti-union actions are counter-productive, and are only increasing tensions in middle-east countries

While countries with human-rights problems like Iran will go up for review next year, the effectiveness of the Universal Periodic Review is yet to be seen. The panel will make recommendations on improving human rights, but the decision to follow through on the suggestions are left to countries. 

The consequences for failure to comply with the Periodic Review’s suggestions are only described by the UN in vague generalities. For example: The Human Rights Council will decide on the measures it would need to take in case of persistent non-cooperation by a State with the UPR.” 

Historically, Iran has had a contentious relationship with the UN. The Review panel has less weight than the Security Council resolutions, which have sanctioned Iran for its nuclear enrichment programs. 

If the country’s defiance on nuclear weapons is any indicator, prospects for improving its labor conditions are grim. 

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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