Iran: Defending Workers’ Rights is Disrupting Public Order
May 1, 2014
"It is four years now that I am denied the chance to accompany my children to school because of my union and guild activities in defense of the legitimate rights of my co-workers … and in the hope that today’s … students, and fathers, mothers, [and] political, civil, and labor rights activists of tomorrow, would not go to prison because of their concerns for their livelihood and their children’s advancement." Reza Shahabi, Union activist and political prisoner, first day of school, September 2013
Today many workers around the world celebrate and honor International Worker’s Day. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, however, workers are denied the right to organize a May Day march, and some languish behind prison walls. Twenty-three activists of the Tehran Vahed Bus Company (SVATH) Union were reportedly arrested today for participating in a May 1st gathering in Azadi Square, Tehran . The Iranian authorities ignore the recommendations of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and continue to punish labor activists, in violation of Iran’s constitution and its international obligations, simply for exercising or attempting to exercise their right to assemble and to secure safe, humane, and just work conditions.
Iran is a founding member of the ILO, a tripartite U.N. agency with government, employer, and worker representatives, and one of the first countries in the sub-region to join the organization. The ILO has 185 Member States and provides a space for all stakeholders to debate and elaborate labor standards and policies.
Iran has ratified 13 ILO Conventions, including five of the eight core conventions (covering the elimination of forced labor, child labor, and discrimination). Iran has not ratified two of the original and most fundamental ILO conventions: Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949.
The principle of freedom of association, at the core of the ILO's values, is a right proclaimed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, which Iran has ratified in June 1975. The right to organize and form employers' and workers' organizations is the prerequisite for sound collective bargaining and social dialogue. Nevertheless, in Iran, authorities deny workers the right of association, illegally suspend or interfere with workers' and employers' organizations, and, in some cases, trade unionists are beaten, detained, and sentenced to years of imprisonment.
Membership in the ILO carries with it the obligation to respect freedom of association principles in national legislation and practice. Employers and workers' organizations can thus bring complaints against Iran. The Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA), established by the ILO in 1951, studies complaints, whether or not the country concerned has ratified the relevant ILO conventions. The Committee examines the facts with the government concerned and, if it concludes that freedoms of association standards or principles are violated, it issues a report through the Governing Body and makes recommendations on how the situation could be remedied. Governments are subsequently requested to report on the implementation of its recommendations.
Over the years, the ILO has reported and made recommendations to Iran with regard to forced labor, discrimination in employment, the right to equal remuneration, and weekly rest, among others, and the CFA has accepted complaints - related to the right to freely associate and organize - brought against the Iranian government.
On July 25, 2006, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) brought a joint complaint against the Iranian Government concerning violations of the principles of freedom of association, protection of the right to organize and to collectively bargain, as they pertained to the case of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (Sherkat-e Vahed), or bus drivers’ union.
The CFA reviewed the case, addressed the allegations, and called on the government of Iran to implement the Committee’s recommendations reported since 2006. Eight years later, the complaint status remains active as Iran continues to deny the workers fundamental rights. The CFA’s latest report and recommendations, released on March 2014, states that:
“… the employees at Sherkat-e Vahed had been disgruntled for many years and complained of low wages and long working hours; use of outdated buses; drivers’ fatigue caused by heavy road congestion; staff redundancy and management’s corruption. However the established “workers’ organizations” at their company had not addressed these workplace issues and concerns. These “workers’ organizations” are the only government-recognized representatives of the labour force in Iran but are not independent of the government.
Whenever workers have been persecuted for trying to organize or bargain collectively, or strikes have been repressed, even violently, there has been no evidence of engagement by the “workers’ organizations” on the side of the workers. As a result the workers at Sherkat-e Vahed studied the International Labour Organization (ILO) literature on trade unions and human rights and after a few years formed their own organization to represent the interest of the workers at their company. They attempted to form a union, the Tehran Vahed Bus Company (SVATH) union. “
The Committee’s review of the facts notes that, to date, the government has not provided any indication in relation to the de facto recognition of the SVATH. This lack of recognition deprives the group of any protection against any form of discrimination related to their trade union membership or their trade union activities. In fact, the initial efforts of the workers at the Vahed Bus Company to organize were met with harassment and subsequent firing. When the workers attempted to formalize their union, at a meeting in May of 2005, they were violently attacked and arrested. The authorities charged them with, “disturbing public order” and “illegal trade union activities.”
In the subsequent crackdown, hundreds were arrested, including Mr. Mansoor Osonlou, a worker with the bus company for over 20 years and a union leader. Mr. Osonlou was charged with “inciting an armed revolt.” He was detained several times between 2005 and 2008 and finally served a five-year sentence at Evin Prison until freed in 2013 and forced into exile.
According to the complaint by the ICFTU and the ITF, the government authorities and the employer allegedly committed several and continued acts of repression against the local trade union at the bus company, including: “harassment of trade unionists and activists; violent attacks on the union’s founding meeting; the violent disbanding, on two occasions, of the union general assembly; and the arrest and detention of large numbers of trade union members and leaders under false pretenses of disturbing public order and illegal trade union activities.”
In order to address the situation, and considering Iran’s response (1) to its previous recommendations, the CFA made the following recommendations to the Islamic Republic of Iran [the Government]:
At the time of the ILO’s publication of its Interim Report and the aforementioned recommendations regarding the complaints against the Islamic Republic of Iran, labor activists are still serving time or facing severe punishments.
In honor of International Worker’s Day, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation calls on the parole, pardon, and immediate release of these prisoners.
The plight of independent labor activists in Iran requires urgent attention. The international community should hold the government of Iran accountable to internationally agreed upon obligations and should urge it to implement the ILO recommendations and to ensure that the rights of workers to organize and to improve their working conditions are respected in law and practice.
(1)- The Islamic Republic of Iran’s reply to CFA