Iran’s semi-official ILNA news agency recently reported that three labor activists from Khuzestan province have been sentenced to five years in prison for crimes against national security.
Two of the activists, Esmail Bakhshi and Mohammad Khanifar, worked at the Haft Tappeh sugar mill. The mill has been the scene of several protests over the lack of workers’ rights and years of unpaid wages.
Free-lance journalist and labor activist Sepideh Gholian was also one of the three sentenced. She was arrested while participating in a demonstration at the mill in November 2018. Both Gholian and Bakhshi have said that they were tortured by agents of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry while they were in Ministry custody.
Although Iran’s constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, peaceful labor activism is treated as a national security offense by the regime: strikers risk harassment or arrest, and labor leaders are subjected to prosecution, imprisonment, and worse.
Yet, as the U.S. State Department noted in its latest human rights report on Iran, “As economic conditions in the country deteriorated, strikes and worker protests were numerous and widespread across the country,” despite the regime’s repression.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Robert Destro recently observed that in addition to the sugar mill workers, labor unrest in Iran has included strikes by truckers, teachers, health care workers and others.
“What they want to know is, why aren’t we getting paid?...You’re taking the money that we earn and you’re spending it on Hezbollah and doing bad things in Syria and other places. So worker unrest in Iran is a good barometer of the stress that workers are feeling. They just can’t afford basic commodities.”
Assistant Secretary Destro emphasized that labor rights are an integral part of fundamental human rights and dignity.
For decades, the Iranian regime has repressed the Iranian people’s fundamental rights, and persecuted Iranian citizens who stand up for them. The United States has repeatedly called for the immediate release of all political prisoners currently held by the regime. And, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said, “The United States will always support access to information, freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and will continue to promote accountability for those who unduly restrict these freedoms.”