Iran: Defending Workers’ Rights is Disrupting Public Order
“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]:
- Pending the implementation of the legislative reforms, the Committee urges the Government to indicate the concrete measures taken in relation to the de facto recognition of the SVATH union, irrespective of its non-affiliation to the Confederation of Iranian Workers’ Trade Unions.
- The Committee once again requests the Government to provide a detailed report of the findings of the State Inspection Organization (SGIO) and the Headquarters of the Protection of Human Rights into the allegations of the workplace harassment during the period of the union’s founding, from March to June 2005. It once again requests the Government, in light of the information revealed by these examinations, to take the necessary measures that all employees at the company are effectively protected against any form of discrimination related to their trade union memberships or activities.
- The Committee requests a copy of the court’s judgment on the action initiated by the union concerning the attacks on union meetings in May and June 2005, once it is handed down.
- Encouraged by the new Government’s stance against the detention of social and trade union activists, the Committee urges the Government to secure, without further delay, Mr. Shahabi’s parole, pardon, and immediate release from prison, the dropping of any remaining charges, as well as the restoration of his rights and the payment of compensation for the damage suffered, requesting that the Government keep it informed in this regard.
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.
Mr. Reza Shahabi, treasurer of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, who has been in custody since June 2010, is serving a six-year prison sentence. Mr. Shahabi has suffered from a number of serious health problems as a result of the brutal treatment he received when he was arrested in 2010 and the denial of medical treatment.
Mr. Reza Shahabi’s case is not unique. Mr. Behnam Ebrahimzadeh, Mr. Ebrahim Eisapour, Mr. Ebrahim Mostafapour, Mr. Ghasem Mostafapour, Mr. Hamidreza Borhani, Mr. Shahrokh Zamani, Mr. Mohammad Jarrahi, Mr. Mohammad Molanaie, Mr. Yousef Abkharabat, Mr. Reza Tamimi, Mr. Vahed Seyedeh, Mr. Mehdi Farahi Shandiz, Mr. Mohammad Karimi, Mr. Ghasem Mostafapur, Mr. Ebrahim Soltani, Mr. Jamlal Minashiri, and Mr. Hadi Tanumand are just a few of the workers serving sentences and charged with “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disturbing public order,” and “engaging in illegal trade union activities.”
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
- In its communication dated 13 October 2013, the Government reaffirms its commitment to the implementation of fundamental principles and rights at work, tripartism and social dialogue. The Government also indicates that its new initiatives are aimed at settling the cases pending before the Committee. Recalling the importance of the Committee’s recommendations, the Government reiterates its full preparedness to cooperate with the International Labour Standards Department.
- Concerning the above recommendations (a) and (b), the Government submits that the Minister of Cooperatives, Labour and Social Welfare has repeatedly urged the judiciary to do its utmost to seek the parole and pardon or to shorten the prison term of Mr Reza Shahabi to the shortest possible. The Government indicates that it fervently continues to seek his release in the shortest time possible. In respect of the allegations of ill-treatment to which Mr Ebrahim Madadi and Mr Reza Shahabi have been subjected while in detention, the Government indicates that in June 2013, it has communicated the Committee’s request to the Senior Adviser of the Chief of the Judiciary and the High Council for Human Rights. In July 2013, it wrote to the Ministry of Justice, seeking an independent investigation of the cases and information thereon. The Government states that despite its earnest and genuine intention to positively comment on these allegations as soon as possible, it has to wait for the report of the judiciary. The Government affirms that it has not spared any effort in reminding the judiciary of the importance of the fundamental principles and rights at work and the need for the protection of freedom of association. The Government assures the Committee that it will continue to do its utmost to genuinely address its concerns, including obtaining a fair and final pardon of Mr Reza Shahabi. The Government is optimistic that its sincere efforts may bear fruit in the near future as the new Government is categorically against any form of detention of the social and trade union activists.
- In reply to recommendation (c), the Government forwards a copy of the draft amendments to the Labour Law which were submitted to Parliament on 2 December 2012. The Government explains that the text of the proposed amendments is being meticulously examined by various special committees of Parliament. Upon their final examination, the proposed bill will be submitted to Parliament for final approval. The Government also indicates that the draft amendments are the fruit of long and laborious consultations initiated by the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labour and Social Welfare, the Iranian Confederation of Employers’ Associations and the three most representative workers’ confederations, including the Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions, the High Council of Workers’ Representatives and the Confederation of the Islamic Labour Councils. The results of the social partners’ deliberations are duly incorporated in the proposed amendments. The Government requests the Committee, in the context of ILO technical cooperation, to make its comments on the draft so as to ensure that it is in full compliance with the respective ILO instruments.
- With regard to recommendation (d), the Government indicates that as per the Labour Law, all workers’ and employers’ organizations are requested to freely and without constraint register their associations with the Ministry of Labour to help the Government to fulfil its reporting obligations toward the ILO and other pertinent international organizations. According to the Government, once the members of the Syndicate of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company submit their registration request together with the by-laws of their association to the Department General of Cooperatives, Labour and Social Welfare of Tehran Province, the request will be duly processed in line with the provision of Chapter VI of the Labour Law. The Government indicates that so far, no such action has been taken in this regard by the syndicate.
- According to the Government, the Labour Law provides that the Tehran Vahed Bus Company (SVATH) union, as an alleged trade union, can exercise its de facto and de jure right to freely embrace the membership of the Confederation of Iranian Workers’ Trade Unions. Since its coming into being, the latter has provided wide opportunities for trade unions’ activists of all walks of trade to enter into collective bargaining with both the government and major enterprises over the protection of trade union rights of its members. The Government further indicates that the Suburban Drivers’ Association, as a member of the above Confederation, has succeeded in taking some giant steps for the protection of the rights of professional drivers all over the Islamic Republic of Iran. Reportedly, the Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions has attempted twice to invite the SVATH union to examine the possibility of affiliation.
- The Government reiterates, as regards the clashes of 2005, that its officials were not in any manner involved in the incidents. It states that due to the separation of powers, it may not reasonably intervene or take sides in trade union disputes or urge the judiciary to abrogate their rulings and decisions. The Government indicates that the 2005 labour dispute between the two contending parties shall be heard on its merits by the competent court.
- Concerning the allegations of barring workers to freely form their associations or exercise their trade union rights, the Government indicates that, according to the Labour Law, no employer is allowed to threaten trade union activists for their legal representation or unilaterally and prematurely terminate their employment contracts. In such cases, upon receiving a worker’s complaint, the Labour Inspection Office of the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labour and Social Welfare will conduct a thorough and immediate investigation and refer the offender to the legal authority.
- In reply to recommendation (e), the Government submits a copy of the by-law on Managing and Organizing Labour Demands (dealing with demonstrations and assemblies) adopted by the National Security Council on 11 July 2011. It further indicates that it welcomes the possibility of an ILO technical cooperation for the training of its disciplinary forces for the proper management of labour protests.
The Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation is a 501(c) 3 non-governmental organization, founded in April 2001, and dedicated to the promotion of human rights and democracy in Iran. The Foundation is an independent organization with no political affiliation and is committed to promoting human rights awareness through education and the dissemination of information as necessary prerequisites for the establishment of a stable democracy in Iran. Please visit us at www.iranrights.org and www.facebook.com/iranrights. All donations are tax deductible.