a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but neither the constitution nor law specifies trade union rights. 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.
Antiunion discrimination occurred, and the government harassed trade union leaders, labor rights activists, and journalists during a crackdown on widespread protests. Independent trade unionists were subject to arbitrary arrests, tortured, and if convicted subjected to harsh sentences, including the death penalty.
According to Radio Zamaneh in June, Jafar Azimzadeh, the general secretary of the board of the Free Trade Union of Iranian workers and a prominent labor activist, was given another sentence of 13 months in prison for “propaganda against the regime.” Azimzadeh was 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 to raise the national minimum wage. In September, Azimzadeh was transferred to Rajai Shahr Prison after ending a 21-day hunger strike in protest of being denied medical treatment after contracting COVID-19, along with 11 other prisoners in Evin Prison.
According to media and NGO reporting, on May 1, International Labor Day, police violently attacked and arrested at least 35 activists who had gathered for peaceful demonstrations demanding workers’ rights, organized by 20 independent labor organizations, in front of parliament. The government barred teachers from commemorating International Labor Day and Teachers’ Day. Several prominent teachers and union activists remained in prison untried or if convicted awaited sentences, including Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi (see below).
The Interior Ministry; the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare; and the Islamic Information Organization determined labor councils’ 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 workers’ efforts to maintain independent unions. The councils, nevertheless, sometimes could block layoffs and dismissals. There was no representative workers’ 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 were numerous and widespread 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.
According to Radio Zamaneh, workers at Haft Tappeh sugarcane company began striking in June to reverse the privatization of the company and to demand the arrest of CEO Omid Asadbeigi accused of currency theft and the embezzlement of their wages. On September 7, 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.
According to a CHRI report, in 2018 security forces violently suppressed protests at Haft Tappeh, the country’s largest sugar production plant, which had been the site of continuing protests against unpaid wages and benefits for more than two years. In May 2019 the protests resurfaced 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.” In December 2019 they each received a prison sentence of five years. Except for Gholian, all as well as syndicate member Mohammad Khanifar were reportedly pardoned during the year. Gholian was re-arrested a week after being released on bail in June and was transferred to Evin Prison.
On October 29, four Haft Tappeh workers–Yusef Bahmani, Hamid Mombini, Massoud Hayouri, and Ebrahim Abassi–were arrested for “disrupting public order” and interrogated without access to their lawyers. In November they started a hunger strike at Dezful Prison to protest their unlawful detention. As of November 8, the strike continued.
According to NGO and media reports, as in previous years, a number of trade unionists were imprisoned or remained unjustly detained for their peaceful activism. Mehdi Farahi Shandiz, a member of the Committee to Pursue the Establishment of Labor Unions in Iran, continued serving a three-year sentence, having been convicted of “insulting the supreme leader” and “disrupting public order.” Arrested several times and jailed since 2012, there were reports that Shandiz was beaten and tortured in Karaj Prison and kept for prolonged periods in solitary confinement.
The government continued to arrest and harass teachers’ rights activists from the Teachers Association of Iran and related unions. In March 2019 media outlets reported continued nationwide teacher strikes demanding better pay, rights to an official union, and the release of teachers’ rights activists who were jailed during protests in 2018. Hashem Khastar–a teachers’ rights activist from Mashhad, was arrested in August 2019 after signing an open letter calling for the resignation of the supreme leader–received a 16-year sentence on March 29.
According to a CHRI report, Mahmoud Beheshti-Langroudi, the former spokesman for the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association (ITTA) jailed since 2017, continued a 14-year combined sentence for charges associated with his peaceful defense of labor rights. CHRI reported in July 2019 that Beheshti-Langroudi commenced another hunger strike protesting his unjust sentence, the judiciary’s refusal to review his case, and the mistreatment of political prisoners.
Esmail Abdi, a mathematics teacher and former secretary general of ITTA, continued a 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.” On March 17, Abdi was furloughed due to the COVID-19 pandemic but was returned to Evin Prison in April 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. Human rights activists viewed Abdi’s re-arrest as a new wave of repression aimed to keep heads down before May Day.
Education International and the United Kingdom Teachers’ Union, NASUWT, condemned Abdi’s re-arrest and also called for the immediate release of Mohammad Habibi, another teacher who was arrested in 2018. Habibi, who is serving a harsh prison sentence for pressing for an improved educational environment, was terminated from the education service.
Media reported that on June 1, a member of the Trade Union of the Tehran and Suburbs Vahed Bus Company was flogged 74 times. Seyed Rasoul Taleb Moghadam, a union member who was detained during the 2019 International Workers’ Day demonstration, presented himself at Evin Court for his sentence. Afterwards, he was transferred to Evin Prison’s quarantine area.