More than 300 workers in the Abadan oil refinery gathered on Thursday November 12 to protest against non-payment of wages and bonuses, saying they had not been paid for more than three months. Yassamine Mather reports
The refinery authorities associated with what remains of the state-owned Iran National Oil Company say the workers are employed by a contractor and they cannot do anything about their demands. The protest followed a strike by the whole workforce of 450 involved in the development of Bandar Abbas Oil refinery. This was their third walkout in less than three months and the strike is continuing. The Iranian government’s privatisation plans are notoriously corrupt and generally help empower and enrich the Islamic Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards). But in the oil industry it is different from elsewhere. Privatisation has been undertaken with the aim of dividing workers and hampering national negotiations over wages and conditions, in the knowledge that for oil workers deployed in various sectors of the industry, working for so many different contractors, it would be impossible to negotiate common terms and conditions.
Private ownership of some oil functions is still prohibited under the Iranian constitution, but the government has permitted buy-back contracts, allowing international oil companies to participate in exploration and development through an Iranian affiliate. The contractor receives a remuneration fee, usually an entitlement to oil or gas from the developed operation. Iran’s total refinery capacity in 2008 was about 1.5 million barrels per day (bbl/d), with its nine refineries operated by the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company. Iranian refineries are unable to keep pace with domestic demand, while the threat of sanctions and removal of fuel subsidies have created price rises and the fear of a shortage of refined fuel.
The current protests are very significant because the Islamic government, wary of the power of oil employees, has so far avoided confrontation with this section of the working class by making sure they receive regular payment and imposing very strict security measures in refineries, services to the oil industry and oil extraction fields.
Iran ranks among the world’s top three holders of both proven oil and natural gas reserves. It is Opec’s second largest producer and exporter after Saudi Arabia, and fourth largest exporter of crude oil globally. Natural gas accounts for half of Iran’s total domestic energy consumption, while the remaining half consists predominantly of oil. The continued exploration and production of the offshore South Pars natural gas field in the Persian Gulf is a key part of the country’s energy sector development plan. Iran has nine oil refineries with a total capacity of 1.4 million bbl/d. They include Abadan, which was one of world’s largest when it was destroyed in 1980 in the Iraq-Iran war. It was also the refinery where the first political strike took place in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, gasoline demand is forecast to grow at around 11.4% per year.1
The Islamic government has not forgotten the significant role of oil workers in the events that led to the February uprising of 1979. In November 1978, a strike by 37,000 workers at Iran’s nationalised oil refineries initially reduced production from six million barrels per day to about 1.5 million. That strike not only cost the government about $60 million a day in oil revenue, but also suddenly raised the spectre of petroleum shortages in Japan, Israel, western Europe and, to a much lesser degree, in the US; all these countries to one extent or another depended at the time on Iranian crude. After a week of strikes and protests, some oil employees went back to work. But the strike played a crucial role in encouraging further militant action and boosted opposition to the regime. It was also significant in asserting the role of the working class in political struggles. The oil workers’ walkout climaxed two months of labour unrest that had spread to nearly every sector of the economy. Demands ranged from pay rises to compensate for spiralling inflation to political reforms, an end to martial law and the release of all remaining political prisoners. A strike of a million civil servants and government workers followed that of the oil workers.
There are many parallels between those strikes and the current unrest amongst oil employees. The present strikes follow weeks of political protests up and down the country. Also Iran’s economic situation is worse than anyone can remember – in addition to rocketing inflation, mass unemployment and systematic non-payment of wages, the new subsidies legislation, passed only a week ago, has already increased the price of basic goods. Everyone is predicting major price hikes.
Bread prices reached 1,000 tomans ($1) in Tehran this week. The newspaper Hemayat said that the two traditional breads, barbari and sangak, were being sold for 600 and 2,000 tomans respectively. The semi-official news agency, ILNA, predicts that both a litre of milk and a kilogram of sugar will soon reach 1,000 tomans. The estimated average wage is around $223 a month, and many workers are not paid for months at a time, while the employer can use the threat of job losses to get away with this form of systematic super-exploitation. In recent statements Iranian workers have once more called for international solidarity and support for their demands – and they are adamant that such support must be from fellow workers. Over the last few years labour activists inside Iran have sometimes been innocent victims of the foolish mistakes of sections of the Iranian ‘left’ that have collaborated with social-imperialist political groups and pro-imperialist, rightwing trade unions.
Those who maintain the principled position of opposing war and sanctions have a duty to show genuine international solidarity with Iranian workers. We can do so by supporting their immediate demands. One of the major organisations trying to unite the current nationwide struggles, the Coordinating Committee to Form Workers’ Organisations, has issued a number of statements regarding recent events, as well as a list of basic demands. Sections of that statement can be summed up as follows:
- The Iranian working class is struggling against the entire capitalist system (all factions of the regime). There is a need to safeguard the independence of the working class in the class struggle. Our movement uses the strength of its organised and conscious forces against political power in its totality; that is why workers must unmask ruthlessly the reformist capitalist faction, a faction that misleads workers by creating the illusion of reform within the system.
- The unity of the working masses in the struggle against capitalism and the need for promoting its material and moral ability to struggle for the abolition of the wage-slavery system requires that this class initiates its organised and conscious struggle from basic demands as described in the Charter of the Fundamental Demands of the Working Class of Iran.
- The main condition for the success of these efforts, including the takeover of factories, the general strike or any struggle for the abolition of capitalist social relations and seizing political power, is the existence of anti-capitalist councils of the working class.
- There must be a struggle against unemployment caused by factory closures, against various forms of intensification of exploitation in the workplace. Proposed tactics include taking over closed down factories or those that are on the brink of closing down in the first instance, and strikes in the second instance.
“Based on the above points,” the statement reads, “we call upon all anti-capitalist activists of the working class movement to unite around the following points” for the organisation of the class against capitalism:
- Agreement on the basic demands of the working class.
- Efforts to form anti-capitalist councils of the working class within workplaces and neighbourhoods.
- Unified planning for launching strikes in all centres of work and centres of production.
- Preparations for the takeover of factories that have closed down or those on the verge of closing down.
- Participation within the current movement, with the aim of forming an independent line for the realisation of the basic demands of the working class.
“Workers, let’s get organised against capital!” concludes the call from the Coordinating Committee to Form Workers’ Organisations.
We in Hands Off the People of Iran must continue our efforts in support of Iranian workers, not just as an act of international solidarity, but as an integral part of our international efforts to confront the economic crisis. Excellent work has been done in 2009, with funds raised by the Fire Brigades Union, Unite, Unison and the RMT, and the efforts of the Labour Representation Committee and Hopi cricket teams. But we must do a lot more in 2010.