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IRAN: Solidarity never, as hard-line government intensifies crackdown on labor

November 22, 2010 |  2:02 pm

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Iranians this month that "frugal" families have nothing to fear from impending economic pressures.

But just in case, his government is cracking down on labor activists who may disagree.

Three workers from the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Co. Union are facing jail time on charges of insulting the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to an Iranian human rights organization. The union, formed following a massive strike in 2008 over withheld wages, has complained of continual harassment by authorities.

"It has gotten more intense, the crackdown, in the last two years, but the last two months have been worse because [the government] is getting rid of subsidies," said Mehdi Kouhestaninejad of the Canadian Labor Congress.

The planned subsidy cuts will target everything from fuel to basic foodstuffs and are expected to have a deep impact on the lower and middle classes in Iran. Kouhestaninejad, who worked as a union meatpacker in Iran until he moved to Canada, said authorities have been cracking down in anticipation of organized protests against the cuts.

"They know the labor movement cannot accept [subsidy cuts] because prices will go through the roof but their wages are the same," he said. "They attack people before they can get organized around this."

Behrouz Nikoufard, Alireza Saeidi and Behrouz Molazadeh are the latest to be charged as the government steps up its crackdown on organized labor. The head of the sugar cane union, Reza Derakhshan, is rumored to be facing jail time for an article he wrote commemorating the syndicate's second anniversary.

"It is now two years since that day –- two bittersweet years," reads the letter, which was translated and published on the website Iran Labor Report.

"On the one hand, after much ebb and flow, five members of our board of directors ... were eventually sentenced by the Dezful Revolutionary Court to jail terms and transferred to prison after being fired from their jobs," it says. "On the other hand ... the condition of workers and that of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Co. are in much better shape than before ... while we, at the [union] board of directors, were severely punished and have lost our bread, the wheels of production at the plant have gone into motion, the workers are back at work, there is food on the table and life goes on."

Labor unrest has risen over the last few years as the Iranian economy continues to struggle. Western sanctions coupled with inflation have led the government to turn to the politically risky subsidy cuts.

The sugar cane workers are among the most active unions, along with the Tehran bus drivers union led by Mansour Osanloo, who has been imprisoned on anti-government charges since 2007. Osanloo was key in organizing protests for higher wages, childcare stipends and better conditions for bus drivers.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Video: Mansour Osanloo, leader of the Tehran bus drivers union, has been in jail since 2007. Credit: International Transport Workers Federation