Oil workers’ strike spreads across Iran; unions appeal for international solidarity
An oil worker at a refinery in Tehran, Iran. Thousands of workers in Iran’s vast energy industry have gone on strike to demand better wages and conditions at oil facilities. | Vahid Salemi / AP

Workers in the oil and petrochemical industries in Iran walked off the job on June 19, and their strike has now spread to numerous sites across the vast oil and gas exploration fields, as well as the oil industry in general.

According to a statement released by the Union of Metalworkers and Mechanics of Iran (UMMI), at least 28,000 workers have downed tools and remain determined to stay out until their demands are met. The strike is proving to be a moment that tests the solidarity between permanent full-time workers and those employed on a contract basis.

One of the key demands of UMMI is that wages must be paid monthly and without delay. Workers in the industry face unpredictable pay schedules or sometimes the prospect of not being paid at all.

In response to being asked to outline the main goals and demands of oil industry workers and contract workers in the recent strikes, UMMI National Secretary Maziyar Gilani-Nejad was quite clear that what workers are asking for is within the strictures laid down in Iranian employment law, which in any case gives employers huge advantages.

“For example, the employment law states that the employer must pay a worker’s wage on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis,” says Gilani-Nejad. “Nowhere does it state that the employer can delay the worker’s wages for three months plus or suddenly disappear having made no payment.

“In such cases, workers and their representatives have tried everything from direct correspondence to requests to meet with their respective parliamentary representatives, but to no avail.”

The current strike action has been initiated mainly by the project and contract workers. However, Gilani-Nejad was clear about the need for support from permanent employees of the oil, gas, and petrochemical companies.

Gilani-Nejad indicated that full-time permanently employed workers in the oil company are also on low wages and have protested several times since the beginning of the year, supporting coordination between them and the project workers. Full-time workers announced their intention to join the strike on June 30.

“The conditions and leave arrangements of the workforce are key demands in the current struggle as well,” said Gilani-Nejad, “with strikers demanding that employers should be obliged to implement the rightful demand for a standard rotation of 20 working days onsite followed by 10 days of commensurate paid leave.”

In addition, the strikers are demanding that insurance contributions must be based on the actual job titles and not capped at the level of an unskilled worker, as at present.

Gilani-Nejad also made the point that workers are demanding the payment of bonuses, benefits, transport costs, and child assistance; proper air-conditioning; an end to low-quality and repetitive meals; and an improvement of hygiene and sanitation in the dormitories.

“Contractors charge the employer for providing first-class air-conditioned minibusses, yet transport the workers in World War II-type minibusses. The conditions are inhumane with temperatures clocking in at 55°C (130°F) in the province of Khuzestan.”

When UMMI announced that employers should raise salaries by 40%, in line with Ministry of Employment guidance, workers faced firings and insults directed at the campaign and the union. The current strike action is the outcome of that failure to adhere to previously reached agreements by the employers.

The UMMI is arguing that the right to peaceful protest against the violation of workers’ rights, as recognized by all international laws, is also included in the constitution and employment laws of Iran. UMMI hopes that such civil protests will persuade the government to find a reasonable and effective way to respond to the demands of the workers. Gilani-Nejad stressed that they must respond positively and in accordance with the respective ILO conventions on trade union structures and workers’ rights.

The situation for workers in Iran is exacerbated by the fact that the government does not recognize independent trade unions, making it more difficult for unions to organize.

In addition, employers regularly contract out project work, through so-called “labor brokers,” who take work from the oil company and delegate it to smaller firms. This subcontracting essentially breaks or obfuscates the direct line of accountability between employer and employee.

As Gilani-Nejad makes clear: “It is a regular practice for the oil companies and the Ministry of Employment to give a portion of the wages owed workers to labor brokers, who do nothing for the project, skim some of the payment, and then delegate the work on, thus depriving the workers of that which is rightfully due to them.”

In order to reduce the parasitic role of labor brokers, UMMI is demanding that a copy of the employment contract on official letterhead, signed and sealed, must be handed to the respective employee. This would make the relationship clearer and the rights and duties of the employer under the law more transparent.

In relation to the recent elections in Iran, which saw hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi elected president, Gilani-Nejad is not optimistic that this will be of any benefit to Iran’s workers.

“While administrations come and go, workers have learned to pay more attention to the actions of the officials rather than election campaign promises.”

Gilani-Nejad drew attention to the statement of Raisi, “The economy should be left to the private sector. Anything that slows down the private sector must be eliminated.”

“These words may serve to encourage people in the private sector,” said Gilani-Nejad. “However, the country’s workers are demanding that the government, in its first steps, address the catastrophic living and working conditions of the working people.

“They are demanding basic steps without delay to address the consequences of privatization and endemic corruption, as well as the need to fill the country’s industrial production capacity.”

It is clear that in the current dispute and in relation to the situation for workers in Iran in general, the UMMI general secretary sees a significant role for international support.

“By uniting with us and giving coverage to our legitimate demands, the trade unions can send a clear and unequivocal message that solidarity at regional, national, and international levels can force the authorities to realize that they must pay the workers their rightful dues.

“It is a fact that such solidarity is only natural and has a great effect on motivating workers to insist upon the realization of their legal rights.”

That action, that solidarity, and the campaign to highlight the struggles of the people of Iran for peace, democracy, and social justice, is one which will continue beyond the current dispute until those goals are achieved.


Jane Green
Jane Green

Jane Green is the national campaign officer of the UK-based CODIR, Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People's Rights.