Yassamine Mather: Sanctions take their toll

Yassamine Mather calls for international solidarity with Iranian workers

Over the last two weeks the number of strikes in Iranian factories and workplaces has risen considerably. Workers have taken action in major plants such as South Pars Gasfields, Alborz Lastic Sazi, Ghaem Shahr textiles, Safa Louleh (pipe manufacturers), as have city council workers in Abadan. Demands have also been raised by nurses and other hospital workers, teachers and civil servants.

Some of the most important oil and gas plants have been hit, as well as key manufacturing industries. In other words, both the traditional and modern sectors. In addition to these strikes, we have also seen the first protests by retired workers opposed to a reduction in price concessions for pensioners, reduced from 15% to 9%. Retired employees demonstrated outside the majles (Islamic parliament). In some ways this was as important as the strikes by workers in employment.

How should we analyse the fact that so many workers’ protests have occurred simultaneously? Is it just a coincidence? Of course, it is impossible to predict how things will evolve, but, given the level of repression against workers and the left, these events mark a significant development in the current stage of economic and political struggles inside Iran. So what are the factors behind this new wave of labour unrest?

There is no doubt that sanctions are creating widespread economic devastation, to a degree that is unprecedented over the last 30 years. The drop in the price of oil on the world market, the reduction of production levels for both oil and gas (itself a result of the failure to renew productive capacity), the fall in non-oil exports, bankruptcies and closures in production and manufacturing, the rise in the rate of inflation in housing and essential goods, the plunder of the country’s economic resources through the expropriation of privatised industries and services by factions of the regime, the colossal rise in the price of medical services and drugs – all this points to an escalation of the economic and social crisis.

By November 9, long queues were forming at petrol stations, as motorists expecting a 400% price rise were trying to fill up their tanks. But low-paid workers are the main victims of the current situation. According to an employee of Ghaem Shahr Textile Industries, many of his colleagues have been forced to remove their children from education (both high school and university) so that they can feed their families on the meagre income from their temporary jobs.

Many small and medium-sized firms have already been bankrupted. However, what we are witnessing now is the effects of the crisis on some of the country’s major industrial units, exposing the extent of the problems facing the whole economy. In the past the Islamic regime could rely on oil income and unbridled imports to deal with the demand for basic consumption goods. But now the ruling elite is faced with two important problems: a fall in the price of oil and a regime of suffocating sanctions.

The new round of sanctions has not only made it difficult to import many items, leading to spiralling price rises for most goods: it has also become a serious political weapon threatening the survival of the regime. The regime cannot ignore the problems of production in major industries and this has given the workers in such plants an opportunity to raise demands regarding wages and working conditions.

All this has occurred at a time when the government has been pushing through the abolition of price subsidies – or promoting ‘targeted subsidies’, as it prefers to say. Despite threats to punish shopkeepers who increase prices charged for essential goods, such as bread, meat, sugar, cooking oil and dairy produce, prices for these items are rising daily. Compared to last year, the cost of bread is likely to have increased five or six times by the end of this Iranian month, while cooking oil will have more than doubled and cuts of lamb tripled.

This week, after months of denial, Iran’s Central Bank admitted the true extent of the rise in the rate of inflation. Statistics issued by the bank and other government organisations, including for the cost of living, are given in dollars, even though Iranian workers are paid in tomans (1,000 tomans = one dollar). Last week the price of imported meat in Tehran supermarkets was $30 a kilo – more than in most stores in London or New York. The average wage is $400 a month.

We should not forget that the removal of subsidies on essential food items was part of a $100 billion cuts programme; an integral component of the regime’s adherence to neoliberal economic policies under the terms of its five-year plan. However, uncertainty over the changes was one of the factors behind a $6 billion slide in the value of Tehran’s stock exchange two weeks ago, with trade volume plummeting 63% and share prices dropping by 43% in just one week.

All this will inevitably lead to increased unemployment. Official figures put Iran’s jobless rate at 14.6%. However, this is far below the true figure. The government of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has revised the definition of what constitutes unemployment a number of times. Currently someone doing just one hour of paid work per week is not considered unemployed. But no-one doubts that for many the prospect of finding a job is non-existent.

The government’s fear of food riots following the abolition of subsidies is so real that even before the deadline for full implementation it stationed special military units in poor districts to ‘maintain security’ – in other words, prepare for potential confrontation with the masses. The police presence in Tehran and other cities was also increased and many were deployed on major streets and outside supermarkets. Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guards’ Tehran commander announced that a special task force has been formed to deal with any economic protests. On November 8, several underground rap musicians were arrested in Tehran, and last week hundreds of young men and women were detained in what the police termed a “security cleansing”. The press has been warned to steer clear of any controversial coverage of the subsidy cuts.

In working class districts, everyone is clearly worried about Ahmadinejad’s plans for ‘reforming’ the economy. Of course, a combination of workers’ protests and riots in shanty towns would be a nightmare for the Islamic regime, but the key element is the strength and organisation of the working class. Given the weakness of the left, we cannot expect the working class to be in a position to take full advantage of the current situation. However, there is no doubt that in these exceptional times the success of the shanty towns struggles, the defeat of the abolition of subsidies and the struggles of pensioners all depend on the proletariat.

As in 1979, Iranian workers are in a position to make their mark in the fight against poverty and exploitation and for democracy. In pursuing these goals they need international solidarity and it is part of the role of Hands Off the People of Iran to mobilise such support.

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