Iranian workers: determined to live in dignity

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Solidarity with Iranian workers

Speech by Shane Enright, AI UK

10 June 2011

These are the remarks made by Shane Enright, Amnesty International Global Trade Union Adviser at the launch of Determined to Live in Dignity: Iranian trade unionists struggle for rights and the global Iran Workers' Rights Campaign at the ILO in Geneva.

Dear colleagues

I am happy to be with you and to be alongside our union partners.

To emphasise the gravity of the situation facing workers and independent trade unions in Iran I want to start by quoting one remark which is reproduced in the publication which we are launching today.

It comes from a joint statement from five independent trade unions, including the Haft Tapeh sugar workers and the Tehran bus workers which we will hear more about in a while. It is in a message to the 2nd World Congress of the International Trade Union Confederation.

'The Iranian labour movement is enduring one of its darkest times ever...the Iranian government has not only completely disregarded its commitments to the international labour conventions and basic workers' rights, but in light of the political situation in Iran during the past year, [it] has paved the way for fiercely attacking even the most basic workers' rights, and to strike against the few existing Iranian labour organizations with ever greater intensity... we wish for you to take greater steps towards driving back the horrendous conditions imposed upon Iranian workers.'

That appeal for solidarity was a year ago, and Amnesty is proud to be here today, alongside our union partners to insist that the Iranian government meets its human and workers rights obligations; that it ceases to imprison, harass, intimidate and dismiss workers solely for the exercise of their universal and fundamental human rights.

And let there be no doubt: the right to organise, the right to join and form trade unions, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike - these are universal human rights.

They are contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the international covenants, in the ILO core Conventions. Iran has agreed to uphold these rights and we are here today to remind them of these obligations.

The right to organise at work is a crucial enabling right; it is the basis on which workers and communities can defend their living standards, protect their health and livelihoods, and ensure decent work and freedom from discrimination.

And in Iran a voice for workers is sorely needed. Workers in Iran have been gravely affected by an ongoing economic crisis. The value of the minimum wage is sinking. The government's programme of subsidy reductions, which started in March 2011, is set to push up the price of water, electricity, petrol, gas and other goods. Many workers have not been paid their salaries for long periods of time. The problem is widespread and on a huge scale.

As a result, many workers and their families are being forced into poverty, especially those who are not guaranteed steady employment such as construction and seasonal workers or those on short-term contracts. The problem is especially acute for working women, who make up about a quarter of the workforce and who are often the first to lose their jobs in a downturn.

Now - more than ever - Iranian workers need independent trade unions that are able to support and defend their rights.

The independent trade unions - including the Tehran bus workers' union, the union of the sugar workers at Haft Tapeh and the teachers' associations which all feature in our report - are banned and their members and leaders have been subjected to repression.

They have faced victimisation simply for standing up for their fellow workers and for demanding their rights. They have been fighting against the withdrawal of subsidies, demanding payment of unpaid wages, fighting precarious working conditions, and have been united in demanding for the freedom to organise, employment security for all workers, freedom for imprisoned trade unionists, equality for women and ethnic minorities, eradication of child labour and quality public services accessible to all.

Their union activities come at great risk. Members have been dismissed from their jobs and regularly harassed by the authorities, attacked and beaten by police, arrested and sentenced to prison - where some have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated.

Let's be clear - Amnesty is steadfast in insisting that workers in Iran must enjoy their fundamental rights to organise, to strike, to collectively bargain. There can be no equivocation.

This year Amnesty International, which now counts on over three million supporters and activists with national sections in seventy countries - is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

It is worth recalling that the article in a British newspaper in 1961 which lead to the formation and foundation of our movement, included the case of Tony Ambelitos, a trade unionist who had been imprisoned by the Greek military Junta solely for the peaceful exercise of his trade union rights. For fifty years Amnesty has defended workers rights, and we are here today to renew that commitment and to continue that struggle.

Wherever labour rights are under attack Amnesty will stand up and be counted. And together we can make a difference. Working with our union partners we have secured releases from jail from trade unionists in the Gambia, In Yemen, and elsewhere.

We are campaigning for workers rights in Zimbabwe, in Colombia, in Turkey, in Burma, and in the United States of America. We are standing up too in support of workers' rights elsewhere in the Middle East and in North Africa.

And our support for independent trade unions in Iran has been consistent. Ever since the formation of the Tehran bus workers union we have been demanding their right to organise and insisting on freedom for Mansour Ossanlu and his colleagues.

We are relieved that he has been released in the past week, but he should never have been jailed in the first place. His release must be made unconditional and his jailed colleagues Reza Shahabi and Ebrahim Madadi must be released forthwith.

Leaders of the Iran Teachers' Trade Associations have faced a similar fate when organising in the classroom and college. Many activists have been arrested across the country, and some are still in jail, including Rasoul Bodaghi. We insist on the right of teachers to have a voice in their workplaces, to organise and to speak out for their fellow educators and to defend the vital services that they supply.

We have also followed closely the formation of the Haft Tapeh sugar workers' union following a mass strike over unpaid wages which took place in 2008. The outcome has been some improvement in working conditions but has come at great cost to union leaders who have been imprisoned or are facing charges today. We demand an end to this harassment.

Before I conclude and give the floor to our union partners who can speak more specifically about their affiliate unions and the situation for workers, I want to say a little about the campaign that we are launching today.

The backbone of this campaign is the short report that you have before you. We have distributed copies to you in English, Arabic and Farsi.

Our campaign will last at least a year - though in a very real sense it is simply the continuation of an ongoing partnership and collaboration that we have had with the ITF, the IUF and EI and ITUC on these cases going back as far as six years.

We will use the publication in many ways and in many contexts. We will distribute it to national and European parliamentarians. We will make sure that friends and allies of Iran see it. We will use it to raise the awareness of workers and Amnesty supporters in those countries that have friendly relations with Iran. We will generate solidarity through protests, action days, postcard appeals and so on.

In this work we will act together - teachers, transport workers, food and agricultural workers coming together with Amnesty activists and supporters. Our national Amnesty sections will coordinate with national union centres to define the best activities and the correct moments for action according to their national circumstances and opportunities.

I am not going to be too specific today about exactly where and when we will be mobilising - the government of Iran will have to wait and see - but I can offer and hint when I say that as well as the English, Arabic and Farsi versions we have today, we will also be producing this report in Spanish, French, German, Russian, Bohasa and Turkish - with further languages planned where there is a demand.

We have stood by the workers of Iran for years now - indeed we were protesting in support of labour rights back before the 1979 revolution. The union movement and Amnesty research and activism are powerful forces when they come together, and I am proud to renew our commitment and our partnership at this launch today. The road ahead may be difficult, but we stand in solidarity with trade unionists in Iran and in defiance of those who would deny them their fundamental rights.

Thank you.

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