War on Workers and Middle Class

In Iran, workers are central victims of the Iranian regime. According to Amnesty International, “independent unions in Iran are banned, workers have few legal rights or protections, and union activists are regularly beaten, arrested, jailed and tortured.” Iran’s Labor Code does not grant citizens the right to form independent unions, despite Iran’s ratification of the UN’s International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and membership in the International Labor Organization. 

Those who support the fundamental rights of workers—to assemble freely, protest unfair conditions, collectively bargain, receive fair contracts, and form independent unions—must stand against the abuses of the Iranian regime.

Chapter VI of Iran’s Labor Code grants workers the right to form “Islamic associations” and “guild societies,” subject to the “approval of the Council of Ministers.” These deliberately vague terms constitute a de facto denial of the right to form independent labor unions. Iran is a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO), but has not ratified two core conventions that guarantee freedom of association and the right to organize. However, the ILO’sDeclaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work states that “All members, even if they have not ratified the Conventions in question, have an obligation arising from the very fact of membership in the Organization, to respect, to promote, and to realize these core conventions.” 

Iran is also a party to the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of association. Articles 26 and 27 of the Iranian Constitution also guarantee freedom of association, putting Iran’s labor policies at odds with its own laws. The Islamic associations approved by the Labor Code are chiefly ideological, and have no function as defenders of worker’s rights. They fall under the jurisdiction of the Worker’s House, a state-sponsored labor organization beholden to the government. Both bodies have established a firm track record in favor of management (International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran).


Labor activists who have attempted to organize unions or strikes have been met with harsh reprisals by the state. The situation grew even tenser several years ago in the attempted re-formation of the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company.

On May Day in 2009, state authorities violently arrested over 100 demonstrating workers, and prominent labor activist Farzad Kamangar was placed on death row. Kamangar was executed on May 9, 2010. Currently, four prominent union activists remain in prison – Osanloo, Ali Nejati, Ebrahim Madadi, and Mohsen Hakimi (International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran).

Workers have not fared better under President Rouhani. In November 2017, Mahmoud Salehi, an imprisoned labor rights activist, was transferred to a prison in Saqqez despite doctors saying he was too ill to be placed in such conditions. Iran’s judiciary also prevented two senior members of the Tehran Bus Drivers Union from attending an international labor conference in Switzerland.

Transportation workers

In recent years, the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (UWTSBC) has become the de facto leader of the Iranian labor movement; their repression at the hands of the government reflects the insurmountable difficulties in forming independent labor unions in Iran. In 2004, the union was unofficially reconstituted, and in 2005, their leader, Mansour Ossanlu, was imprisoned and beaten by state authorities. In 2007, he was charged for “acts against national security” and handed a five-year sentence. Members of the UWTSBC who protested Ossanlu’s imprisonment were subjected to a fierce crackdown that resulted in 500 arrests. The union remains unrecognized, and so far, 54 workers have been fired for their membership in UWTSBC. 

In the Rouhani administration transport workers have continued to protest—as recently as October, they demonstrated against the privatization of the Persian Gulf International Transport Company, which resulted in unpaid wages and 1200 workers belatedly receiving or not receiving at all overtime bonuses as promised. “Real privatization” has been a priority of the Rouhani administration, yet these kinds of transitory problems still exist.


In recent years, teachers’ associations have become a central target for government repression. Police have initiated crackdowns on teachers who have been found to belong to these associations, or who have publicly celebrated May Day, World Teacher’s Day, or National Teacher’s Day. These crackdowns have taken the form of arrests, beatings, interrogations, prison sentences, and pay cuts. 

In 2007, following a series of teacher protests, the Iranian government banned independent teachers’ associations. Activists were detained and charged with crimes, while many ordinary teachers suffered pay cuts and were forced into retirement. Government prosecution and pressure from the state intelligence service has forced most teachers’ associations out of existence, but the cities of Tehran, Isfahan, and Kermanshah are reported to still have active teachers’ associations (ITUC). 

On National Teacher’s Day of 2009, over 100 teachers were harassed and beaten by police for publicly celebrating the holiday. On World Teacher’s Day of 2009, police broke up a meeting of the Tehran Teacher’s Association, brought 11 teachers into custody, and charged the Association’s president, Aliakbar Baghani, with “celebrating World Teacher’s Day” (ITUC). Four teachers are currently in jail for alleged union-related activity: Esmael Abdi, Rasoul Bodaghi, Hashem Khastar, and Abdolreza Ghanbari. Ghanbari is currently on death row for “enmity towards God” School teacher and teachers’ association activist Farzad Kamangar was executed on May 9, 2010 (Education International).

In the Rouhani administration, teachers continue to experience hardship. According to news accounts, in January 2015, hundreds of teachers in Shahrud and Marivan rallied to decry the poor living conditions they faced, calling for “nondiscriminatory payment of wages to all government employees, equal pay for men and women, and a suitable and secure environment for teachers.” In the same year, 6,900 teachers also wrote to the speaker of the Iranian Parliament, “[t]he majority of Iran's teachers are not able to take care of their basic needs and live under the poverty line. Their status in society has been damaged and they have lost their motivation to work.”

Unpaid Wages

The failure of the state and private employers to pay wages on schedule, largely due to the regime’s economic mismanagement and growing international isolation—has recently become a touchstone for recurring worker demonstrations. For example, in December 2009, over 500 employees of the Iran Telecommunications Industries protested publicly over wage arrears (PBS). In October 2010, workers at two factories went on strike to demand wages unpaid for three months. A factory employee stated that “the plant's retired workers have not received their pensions since last year -- they live in absolute poverty.” Such neglect and abuse of workers’ compensation is now prevalent throughout Iran. 

Fast forward to 2017, workers continued to protest unpaid wages. According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, in July, at least 13 workers were imprisoned after demonstrating for not having received their paychecks in Khuzestan Province. In September, the Center highlighted that workers demonstrated against the Heavy Equipment Production Company and the Azarab Industries Company in Arak. According to the accounts, “[t]he police and anti-riot forces went on the attack and beat and arrested anyone they could and took them to the security police detention center [in Arak, 173 miles south of Tehran]… [w]e don’t know how many are in detention or what they have been charged with. But we think there are 20 to 30 in custody.”

Unemployment and Rising Prices

Iran’s war on workers goes beyond its lack of labor protections—official unemployment remains unsustainably high at 12.4%. Though some analysts say that the actual rate is closer to 35-40%. Millions of people remain trapped in an endless cycle of joblessness and poverty—according to some estimates, 35% of the country is living below the poverty line. 

And forecasts for 2018 are bleak—the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that despite a decrease in unemployment between 2016 and 2017 from 12.5-12.4%, respectively, the rate would remain constant through 2018.

The lack of movement in this space, coupled with the rising prices of Iranian staples—which have increased by 40% in recent days—continues to squeeze families across the Islamic Republic, prompting domestic unrest as evidenced by the protests exploding across the nation in December.

Budget Battles

Such hardship comes on the heels of a $337 billion austerity budget, presented by President Hassan Rouhani, for the Iranian new fiscal year, which begins on March 21. The budget slashes popular subsidies for the poor and fuel prices are expected to increase by as much as 50%. Rather than benefits to the public trickling down, they are trickling up, being gifted to the highest echelons of the Islamic Republic. For instance, hardline cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi is expected to receive IR280bn—eight times what he received a decade ago, according to the Financial Times. Ordinary Iranians are being left on the margins of society while ‘millionaire mullahs’ are enriching themselves and their patronage networks.

The Political Equation

It is significant that the first Iranian official to comment on the latest unrest was President Hassan Rouhani. But final authority and responsibility rests with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who hasn’t been shy of laying blame on the Rouhani administration for the country’s woes. For example, in August 2017, the supreme leader chastised the Rouhani government on its statistics, saying “the economic statistics presented [by the government] are based on scientific rules, but these statistics do not fully and comprehensively reflect the country’s real situation and people’s living conditions… [b]ased on these statistics, the inflation has been decreased from tens of per cent to under ten per cent, but has people’s buying power increased accordingly?” Khamenei has adopted a hedging strategy—rarely taking responsibility for government decisions and passing the buck to whoever is president to avoid blame and preserve maximum flexibility for future political utility. We’ve seen this movie before with the nuclear accord—while he endorsed the deal, he indicated his lack of trust in Washington to carry through on its commitments so as to be able to demonstrate his “wisdom” if he decided later on that the costs of remaining a party to the nuclear deal outweighed its benefits. In the coming year, we are likely to see Khamenei further test Rouhani and hold him accountable for the country’s dismal economic performance.

Lastly, the bleak economic picture in Iran has laid bare the limits of the nuclear deal, which was expected to pay dividends to Iran in reconnecting the country, at least in part, to the global economy. In 2018 we will see conservative elements of the Islamic Republic seeking to lay blame at Washington for thwarting the fruits of the deal as an answer to the protesters. But the structural problems inherent in Iran’s economy, for example its banking sector in the existence of financing terrorism and the prevalence of money laundering, will dampen the ability of the authorities to make a difference.