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Hundreds of workers protesting in front of the Iranian Parliament on January 7, 2015

April 29, 2015—On the eve of International Workers’ Day on May 1, Iranian authorities have arrested at least five labor leaders. The arrests have taken place in the context of intensifying labor protests, strikes, and arrests of individuals organizing or participating in labor protests.

“The Government views any labor mobilization as a national security threat,” said Hadi Ghaemi, Executive Director of the Campaign. “Workers should be allowed to peacefully defend their common interests, without risking years behind bars.”

“Rouhani needs to turn his attention to the people of Iran. Workers are suffering and their demands need to be heard,” added Ghaemi.

Tehran Security Police arrested two members of the Union of Workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, Ebrahim Maddadi and Davood Razavi, in their homes on April 29, and two other labor activists, Mahmoud Salehi and Osman Ismaili, were arrested in the city of Saqez in the Kurdistan Province on April 28. On April 25, plainclothes security agents in Sanandaj, Kurdistan, arrested the labor activist Reza Amjadi.

On April 20, four days after thousands of teachers protested against low wages, Alireza Hashemi, head of the Iran Teachers Organization, was detained and transferred to Evin Prison to serve a five-year sentence originally handed out to him in 2013.

Independent labor unions are banned in Iran, strikers are often fired and risk being detained, and labor leaders face long prison sentences on trumped up national security charges.

Despite this, a growing wave of strikes and worker protests have roiled many sectors in Iran over the past year, as a combination of international sanctions and economic mismanagement has taken a heavy toll on the economy, with workers bearing the brunt of the economic pain.

Some 70% of workers’ wages are now under the official poverty line in Iran, and approximately 90% of all contracts are temporary, affording workers no insurance or protections.

Over the past year, workers in dozens of factories have experienced more than 6 months of unpaid wages. For example, 900 workers in the Ahvaz City Metro Construction project haven’t received their wages for more than four months.

From March 2014 to March 2015, there were at least 233 protests throughout the country, with strikes occurring in the automotive industry, petrochemicals, mining, cement production, and other sectors.

Protests by teachers, who are paid at rates well below the official poverty line in Iran, have been particularly widespread. On April 16, 2015, teachers gathered in silent protests over their wages in 37 cities nationwide.

Punishment for any kind of organized labor protest is swift and severe. Instances of workers being fired after their participation in protests are numerous. For example, nearly 1000 workers at the Safa Rolling company in Saveh were fired in February 2015, and as the protests over unpaid wages continued, others who joined the strikers were fired as well.

Summons to court frequently follow as well. For example, eleven workers at the Agh Dareh gold mine, who had protested the suspension of 350 of their co-workers, were forced to appear in court.

At least 230 people were arrested in peaceful labor protests during the March 2014 to March 2015 period, and a number of leading labor activists are serving lengthy sentences in Iranian prisons.

The teacher Rassoul Bodaghi sits in Rajaee Shahr Prison, serving a five-year sentence for “propaganda against the state,” and “assembly and collusion with the intent to disrupt national security.”

The labor activist Reza Shahabi is serving six years in Rajaee Shahr Prison for “propaganda against the state,” and collusion with the intent to act against national security.”

Shahrokh Zamani, also a labor activist, is serving ten years at Rajaee Shahr Prison for “forming an illegal anti-state organization,” “participating in propaganda against the state,” “assembly and collusion for committing crime against national security,” and “insulting the Supreme Leader.”

Mahmoud Bagheri, a board member of the Teachers Union, is serving nine-and-a-half years for “assembly and collusion,” and “propaganda against the state” at Evin Prison.

The International Labor Organization (ILO), of which Iran is a member, mandates the right of workers to associate freely and bargain collectively, and its Committee on Freedom of Association is charged with investigating complaints relating to its observance by member states. Its March 2014 report notes Case No. 2508, in which the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) lodged a complaint against the Government of Iran.

The complaint cited “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 (disturbing public order, illegal trade union activities).”

Iran is also obligated under international law. It is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which mandates in Articles 21 and 22 freedom of association and guarantees the right to form trade unions, and to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees in Article 8 the right of workers to form or join trade unions and protects the right of workers to strike.

In addition, the Iranian constitution itself contains provisions for such rights: Article 26 guarantees the right to form “parties, societies, political or professional associations,” and Article 27 states that “Public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran calls on the Government of Iran to immediately free imprisoned labor leaders, cease the persecution of labor activists, and respect its legal obligation to allow workers to organize and bargain collectively.