Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has reacted to an upsurge in labor unrest by labeling it a plot backed by the country’s enemies, echoing his response to anti-government protests last month.
In recent weeks, Iranian workers protesting labor conditions have gone on strike at a steel-making company in Ahvaz and at the Haft Tapeh sugar cane plantation in Shush, two cities located in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. Workers for the Tehran Metro rapid transit system also have been on strike.
State-run news agency IRNA said Khamenei commented on the strikes in a statement read out on Monday at a Tehran ceremony commemorating “martyrs” of Iran’s industrial community.
IRNA quoted Khamenei as saying Iran’s enemies have attempted to “provoke” Iranian workers into going on strike in order to drive the economy into recession. But he said the workers have “resisted” and “foiled” those attempts in recent years.
In an interview with VOA Persian’s NewsHour program on Monday, Canada-based Iranian labor activist Mehdi Kouhestaninejad, who says he maintains regular contact with his counterparts in Iran, disputed Khamenei’s assertions as “totally unsubstantiated.” He said the striking workers do not see themselves as tools of foreign powers.
“When you talk to these workers, they tell you that they come from a socio-economic class that has been loyal to Iran’s Islamic Revolution and that made sacrifices for the nation during the Iran-Iraq war," said Kouhestaninejad, a national representative of the Canadian Labour Congress.
Iranian labor activists have said one of the workers’ main complaints is protracted nonpayment of salaries.
RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, a sister network of VOA, reported that hundreds of steel workers of the Steel Industrial Group in Ahvaz began a strike in January to protest three months of unpaid wages. Radio Farda said the workers’ union posted a message on social media quoting a company board member as saying its owners have no money to pay wages until the Iranian New Year, which starts March 21.
Kouhestaninejad said Iranian workers are “deprived of basic rights” to seek redress for their grievances.
Iranian security forces occasionally have cracked down violently on labor protests that have been increasing in frequency across the nation in recent years.
Iranian opposition activists reported that security forces beat up workers protesting at the Aqdareh gold mine in the northwestern province of West Azerbaijan in June 2017. Iranian authorities later prosecuted some of the workers and sentenced them to lashes, in an apparent warning to other labor activists of the consequences of going on strike.
In an article published by The Washington Post last month, two Los Angeles-based sociologists at the University of California said a study of Iran’s recent labor unrest shows that escalations into violence have been rare.
The authors wrote that local police have attempted to guide protesters off the streets and into negotiation with state officials on specific issues. They also said police across Iran increasingly have been trained in routine crowd control tactics since the deadly 2009 street battles triggered by that year’s disputed presidential election.
In early January, Khamenei also had accused Iran’s “enemies” of provoking a week of nationwide anti-government protests that posed the biggest challenge to his rule in years.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pointed the finger at several nations, including the United States.
U.S. leaders expressed moral support for the protests but made no declaration of any practical help for the protesters.
VOA Persian’s Shahram Shahseta and Mohammad Naficy contributed to this report.