Rare labor petition in Iran shows economic alarm

By Nasser Karimi

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Oct. 1 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

"It's not ideology that is the weakest link for Iran's ruling system," said Sami al-Faraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. "It's the economy. This, of course, was an important element of the Arab Spring, and that fact is definitely not lost on Iran."

Iran's factory workers and laborers have provided the tipping points at pivotal moments. They gave vital populist backing to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and generally sided with the ruling clerics when they were under threat by riots after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009.

The petition contains no warnings or ultimatums against the Islamic system, or references to the nuclear program, activists say. But the scope of the signatures — representing several Iranian cities — is an unusual show of grassroots unity without umbrella organizations such as unions.

"When we do not have rights for major protest rallies and strikes, petition is the only way," said Parvin Mohammadi, a retired metal industry worker and one of the organizers. She said the workers wrote a protest petition about irregular pay of their wages earlier in June.

Another labor activist said signatures were gathered clandestinely at factories and work sites. "Sometime we collected signatures through the mail," said the activist, who would only give his first name of Sadegh because of fear of reprisals from authorities.

The signatures included mine workers in the mineral-rich center and west, food and textile producers in Tehran and central Iran, and bus drivers in Tabriz, in northeastern Iran. Conspicuously absent, activist said, were workers in the oil industry, which provides up to 80 percent of Iran's foreign revenue. Iranian oil workers usually receive better wages than others.

Labor groups also object to changes in Iran's labor law, which give employers a freer hand in firing workers and would cut annual leave to 20 days from 30 days. Ali Reza Mahjoub, a representative of workers in the parliament, said he would lead fights against the changes with possibly more street protests.

"This is an exercise for unity of workers," said Hamid Reza Shokouhi, editor of independent Mardomsalari daily. He said the petition demands are not directly political but carry a whiff of dissent since "activities of workers were blocked because they were interpreted in the past as opposition to the ruling establishment."

Iranian officials have made no comment on the petition, which was only reported by the semiofficial ILNA news agency and pro-reform Shargh daily. But some lawmakers have thrown the petition their support. Abbas Ali Mansouri, a parliament member, said higher wages are needed "while workers are falling under the poverty line."

At a square in downtown Tehran, laborers gather to be picked for day jobs at construction sites, making about 300,000 rials ($9.50) a day.

"I wish I was among signatories. I was not aware of it prior to reports," said Abbas Hodavand, an unemployed construction worker. "Every day, in heat and cold, we wait to be picked up by a possible employer. This is not a life."

Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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