Mass arrest of labour activists in brutal raids by Iranian security forces

According to reports by the Coordinating Committee to Help Form Workers’ Organizations (CCHFWO), the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), and the Nationalist-Religious movement’s website, over fifty prominent labour activists have been arrested by Iranian security forces on Friday 16 June 2012.

The labour activists, who were taken during brutal surprise raids on their homes, have been detained at the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MoIS) office at Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj, Iran. As of the date of writing, all but the following nine have been released: Mitra Homayooni, Reyhaneh Ansari, Saeed Marzban, Cyrus Fathi, Alireza Asgari, Masoud Salimpour, Maziar Mehrpour, Faramarz Fetrat Nejad, Jalil Mohammadi.

Curiously, the surprise raids comes a few days after Amnesty International called on the Islamic Republic to release labour activists during an event celebrating the 101st anniversary of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland. The Islamic Republic, which has an extremely poor labour rights record, has already arrested and tortured a number of prominent labour activists. They include: Reza Shahabi, Treasurer of the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company; Ali Nejati, a former leader of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Company (HTSCC) Trade Union; Ali-Reza Akhavan, a member of the Centre for Workers Rights Defenders (CWRD); Behnam Ebrahimzadeh and Shahrokh Zamani, members of the Follow Up Committee to Set Up Free Trade Associations (FUCSUTA); Rasul Bodaghi, a member of the Tehran Iran Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA); Sharokh Zamani and Mohammad Jahari, members of the Committee to Pursue the Establishment of Workers Organizations (CPEWO); and Fariborz Raisdana, a prominent economist, academic, and  a member of both the Iranian Writers’ association (IWA) and the CWRD.

Editor’s note: Despite the Islamic Republic’s poor labour rights record, a coordinated attack on prominent labour rights activists on such a scale is nearly unprecedented. Moreover, it is somewhat ironic given that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has declared 1391 (the current Iranian calendar year) the year of “National production [and] supporting Iranian labour and capital”. The immediate cause of this massive crackdown is difficult to discern, especially given that May Day (a key date for labour demonstrations) has already passed, Iran is not in the midst of an election campaign, and since there appears to be no large-scale labour gatherings of any other kind.

One reason behind the mass arrests may be fear of the growing labour movement as a potential political force. Mismanagement, corruption, and sanctions have led to a downward spiral in the economy with high levels of poverty and unemployment. In this context, workers have been hit very  hard by massive layoffs and have seen a worsening of working conditions, raising the spectre of labour unrest on a large scale. According to BBC Persian, 10,000 workers have signed a petition to the welfare, labour, and social affairs minister Abdul-Reza Sheikholeslami criticizing the Targeted Subsidy Plan, high inflation, low wages, and shortcomings in the government’s insurance and retirement planning for workers.

The question of labour in Iranian politics is one which has gone unaddressed for some time now. None of the main factions within the Islamic Republic’s political establishment represent labour organizations or their discourse. Indeed, the exclusion of labour from mainstream politics may have been an important contributing factor to the failure of various reform efforts including the 1997-2005 Second Khordad Movement and the 2009-2010 Green Movement. It will be interesting to see whether at this critical moment the Islamic Republic will attempt to tap this source of potential power, as Khamenei’s declarations indicate, or whether labour will become part of the political opposition to the regime.