a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The constitution provides for freedom of association but does not provide for the right of workers to form and join trade unions. The law states that workers may establish an Islamic labor council or a guild at any workplace, but the rights and responsibilities of these organizations fell significantly short of international standards for trade unions. In workplaces where workers established an Islamic labor council, authorities did not permit any other form of worker representation. The law requires prior authorization for organizing and concluding collective agreements. Strikes are prohibited in all sectors, although private-sector workers may conduct “peaceful” campaigns within the workplace. The law does not apply to establishments with fewer than 10 employees.
Authorities did not respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, and the government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. The government severely restricted freedom of association and interfered in worker attempts to organize. Labor activism is considered a national security offense for which conviction carries severe punishments up to and including the death penalty. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination and does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Penalties were not imposed for violations involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.
Antiunion discrimination occurred, and the government harassed trade union leaders, labor rights activists, and journalists during crackdowns on widespread protests. According to NGO and media reports, as in previous years, several trade unionists, including members of teachers unions, were imprisoned or remained unjustly detained for their peaceful activism. Independent trade unionists were subjected to arbitrary arrests, tortured, and if convicted subjected to harsh sentences, including the death penalty.
In February authorities reportedly summoned to prison Ali Nejati, a labor rights activist and former employee of the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company, to serve a five-year sentence. Nejati had previously been pardoned, but the judiciary reportedly informed his lawyer his pardon had been a “mistake.”
According to media and NGO reports, on May 1, International Labor Day, police violently attacked and arrested at least 30 activists who had gathered for peaceful demonstrations demanding workers’ rights in Tehran and elsewhere. All detainees were later released on bail. The government barred teachers from commemorating International Labor Day and Teachers’ Day. Several prominent teachers and union activists remained in prison without facing trial or, if convicted, awaited sentencing, including Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi (see below in this subsection).
According to Radio Zamaneh, in June 2020 Jafar Azimzadeh, the general secretary of the board of the Free Union of Iranian Workers and a prominent labor activist, was sentenced to 13 months in prison for “propaganda against the regime.” Azimzadeh was previously arrested in 2015 and sentenced to six years in prison by Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran for organizing a petition that collected 40,000 signatures seeking to raise the national minimum wage. In September 2020 Azimzadeh was transferred to Rajai Shahr Prison after ending a 21-day hunger strike to protest being denied medical treatment after contracting COVID-19. On April 10, Azimzadeh was released from prison.
In his July report, UNSR Rehman drew attention to the prolonged solitary confinement of labor rights activist and British-Iranian dual-national Mehran Raoof as “especially disturbing.” According to Amnesty International, in October 2020 IRGC intelligence agents arrested Raoof, along with several other labor rights activists throughout the country. In June Raoof reportedly appeared in court on vague charges of involvement in banned political groups. He subsequently was being held in solitary confinement in Ward 2A of Evin Prison and was denied legal counsel and calls to his immediate family members, who lived abroad.
The Interior Ministry; the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare; and the Islamic Information Organization determined labor council constitutions, operational rules, and election procedures. Administrative and judicial procedures were lengthy. The Workers’ House remained the only officially authorized national labor organization, and its leadership oversaw, granted permits to, and coordinated activities with Islamic labor councils in industrial, agricultural, and service organizations with more than 35 employees.
According to CHRI, the labor councils, which consisted of representatives of workers and a representative of management, were essentially management-run unions that undermined worker efforts to maintain independent unions. The councils, nevertheless, sometimes could block layoffs and dismissals. There was no representative worker organization for noncitizen workers.
According to international media reports, security forces continued to respond to workers’ attempts to organize or conduct strikes with arbitrary arrests and violence. As economic conditions deteriorated, strikes and worker protests continued across the country throughout the year, often prompting a heavy police response. Security forces routinely monitored major worksites. According to CHRI, workers were routinely fired and risked arrest for striking, and labor leaders were charged with national security crimes for trying to organize workers.
In 2018 security forces violently suppressed protests at the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company factory. In 2019 the protests there restarted in response to the announcement of a joint indictment issued against five journalists and two labor rights activists. Sepideh Gholian, Amir Hossein Mohammadifard, Sanaz Allahyari, Ali Amirgholi, Asal Mohammadi, Esmail Bakhshi, and Ali Nejati were charged with “assembly and collusion against national security,” “forming groups with the intention to disturb national security,” and “contacts with antistate organizations.” They each received a prison sentence of five years. Except for Gholian, all, including syndicate member Mohammad Khanifar, were reportedly pardoned during the year. Gholian was rearrested a week after being released on bail in June 2020 and was transferred to Evin Prison. On October 10, Gholian was rearrested and returned to Evin Prison in retribution for posting on social media while on furlough from Bushehr Prison about the sexual abuse and torture she witnessed against incarcerated women and children (see section 1.c., Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment).
According to Radio Zamaneh, workers at Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company began striking in June 2020 to reverse the privatization of the company and to demand the arrest of CEO Omid Asadbeigi, who was accused of currency theft and the embezzlement of their wages. In September 2020 the Supreme Auditing Court ruled that Haft Tappeh’s sale must be annulled “due to violations in transferring the ownership of the company, failure to achieve goals set by the sale, and the buyers’ bad faith in honoring their commitments,” thereby removing Asadbeigi as owner. The Haft Tappeh Workers Syndicate then issued a statement declaring a temporary halt to the protest. In May, according to Radio Zamaneh, a Tehran court ruled in favor of the dismissal of Asadbeigi and Mehrdad Rostami, the two owners of the factory. A few days after the ruling, due to pressure from the government, the previous owners halted production at the factory. The Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Workers’ Union announced on April 23 that the factory workers’ lawyer Farzaneh Zilabi had been summoned to court in Shush city, Khuzestan Province, where his license was then suspended. According to labor activists, the company’s executives had not paid workers’ salaries since March, and authorities reduced the company’s water rights by half. The workers’ union reported that on June 3, police opened fire to disperse workers gathered outside the factory to protest the situation.
On April 4, security forces detained labor activist and retired worker Ismail Gerami in his Tehran home in a reported effort to prevent a rally of retirees. According to Radio Zamaneh, in May retirees – including retirees of social security, Laleh Hotel, Shiraz Telecommunication, the steel industry, Iran Air, and the health-care sector – took to the streets in multiple cities for several weeks to demand an increase in their retirement pay. The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Gerami to five years in prison, 74 lashes, and a fine.
The government continued to arrest and harass teachers’ rights activists from the Teachers Association of Iran and related unions. In response to an announcement by the head of the Plan and Budget Organization, Masoud Mirkazemi, that the new government had abandoned the plan to raise teachers’ salaries, on September 5, large groups of teachers gathered outside of parliament to protest, according to CHRI. Reportedly they chanted, “The poverty line is 12 million tomans ($2,800); our salary is three million tomans ($710).” On September 14, another protest was held around the country.
According to a CHRI report, Mahmoud Beheshti-Langroudi, the former spokesman for the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA) who had been jailed since 2017, continued serving a 14-year combined sentence for charges associated with his peaceful defense of labor rights. Esmail Abdi, a mathematics teacher and former ITTA secretary general, continued serving his six-year prison sentence for labor rights activism. He was arrested in 2015 and convicted in 2016 for “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.” In March 2020 Abdi was furloughed due to the COVID-19 pandemic but a month later was returned to Evin Prison to serve a suspended 10-year sentence he received in 2010 for “gathering information with the intention to disrupt national security” and “propaganda against the state.” He contracted COVID-19 after being returned to Evin. As reportedly occurred with other activists and political prisoners throughout the year, on March 16, authorities suddenly “exiled” or transferred Abdi from Evin Prison to Rajai Shahr Prison as reprisal for a 13-day hunger strike in protest of restrictions of prisoner rights. In his July report, UNSR Rehman expressed concern regarding Abdi’s detention.