December 10, 2016
By: Roshanak Asteraki

In recent days, numerous workers and trade union activists have gathered in front of the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) to protest government’s proposed law to amend a labour code that in their view is unjust and fails to protect the rights of workers.

The bill was originally introduced by the government of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but was rejected by the Majlis and sent back for revisions. There was renewed hope among workers after the election of President Rouhani whose government promised to improve wages and work conditions.

Since the ratification of the current labour laws in 1990, there have been major developments including the creation of free trade zones, restructuring of contract labour, and official recognition of temporary employment and fixed-term contracts. Those directives went into effect during the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the early to mid 1990s.

Many labour activists believe that government’s recognition of temporary employment has posed a serious challenge to the Iranian worker. They argue that it has allowed employers to violate workers’ rights with impunity. The problem has been exacerbated by western sanctions amid the economic downturn of the past decade. Back in February 2015, the head of the union for contract labour said that more than 95 percent of workers were employed on a temporary basis, and given fixed-term contracts ranging from one to three months.

Labour activists and workers complain that the proposed bill does not compel employers to increase wages in line with inflation or cost of living index, and also makes it easier to fire workers. Nasser Chamani, a member of the National Workers Trade Association, believes that the bill is anti-labour and “inhumane.” He told Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA): “If ratified, the proposed amendment, would make it nearly impossible for workers to argue their case in dispute-resolution courts.”

Chamani’s boss, Mr Abbasi told Mehr News Agency: “One of the main problems is the lack of clarity in article 7 of the bill. It does not define the nature of regular and irregular work, nor the maximum length of a short-term contract. These should have been decided by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs”.

Labour activists and trade unions have been extremely critical of President Rouhani’s government for failing to amend the labour laws and protect workers’ rights. The Islamic Labour Party and the Worker’s House, the two most prominent national trade unions in Iran, supported President Rouhani in the last election. They also campaigned for a group of reformist candidates, dubbed the “List of Hope” by the the former President Mohammad Khatami, in parliamentary elections of March 2016. The disillusioned labour unions, activists and workers have lost faith in President Rouhani and the Majlis.

Davoud Amiri, deputy director of the labour councils of Khorasan province, believes that the workers didn’t expect their rights to be so “blatantly violated” by the current government. He said: “The Amendment Bill is riddled with so many problems that no-one dares to tackle it for fear of losing credibility.”

According to a report released in November 2016 by human rights watchdog groups, employees in over 40 factories in Iran work under extremely poor conditions.