Mayday for May Day: Iranian Labor Unionists need our help!

By: ​Local Group 11, NYC

Over the last few years, scores of independent trade unionists in Iran have been sentenced to prison on national security charges that range from spreading propaganda against the state to participation in illegal gatherings solely for union organizing and taking part in peaceful protests. Independent unions are banned in Iran, and workers have to address their grievance through Islamic Labour Councils that ​must be approved by employers and the security services​. This arrangement undermines the point of having a regulatory body. As a result, workers feel that it is better to not complain to avoid being fired or punished.

Iranian authorities have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which guarantee the right to join a trade union of one’s choice. Moreover, Article 24 of the Iranian Constitution provides for freedom of expression in press and publications. Despite these legal commitment to union rights, independent members often face arrests, prosecution, and torture.

Amnesty USA’s local Group 11 from NYC is campaigning on behalf of four Iranian trade unionists, demanding the release of Esmail Abdi and Ebrahim Madadi and quashing of sentences for Davoud Razavi and Reza Shahabi.

One of the activities that landed ​Ebrahim Madadi​, 61, deputy head of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (SWTSBC), in prison, was ​distributing cookies to his coworkers on International Labor Day. Peaceful union activism of this kind prompted Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran to convict and sentence him, in August 2016, to 5 years 3 months for “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security” and “disrupting public order by participating in illegal gathering”.

Davoud Razavi​, another leader of the SWTSBC, was sentenced to five years of imprisonment on national security charges for attending “illegal gathering” (union meeting) and taking and publishing online photos from them. The court cited this as “anti-revolutionary propaganda.” An invitation to attend an International Labor Organization conference was cited as “evidence” of contact with “opposition labor rights activists outside of Iran.” Razavi is not currently in prison; in March 2019 his sentence was suspended. However, it was not voided.

The treasurer and board member of the SWTSBC, ​Reza Shahabi​, was sentenced to six years in prison in 2012 and has served most of his term. He was discharged on medical furlough and released in March 2018, but it is not clear what sentence Shahabi still may face, as an additional one-year sentence was imposed in 2015.

Other trade unionists are labelled as national security threats. A high school math teacher and former Iran Teachers Trade Association (ITTA) Secretary General, ​Esmail Abdi​, has been serving a six-year prison sentence since November 2016. After refusing the demands of security officials to resign from his ITTA position and cancel nationwide teacher demonstrations, he was convicted of national security offenses on the ground of his peaceful trade union activities, such as demonstrations against an inadequate education budget and low wages.

These unionists have received a ​tremendous support from international labor organisations that published open letters and organized demonstrations. The International Trade Union Confederation (​ITUC​), the International Transport Workers’ Federation (​ITF)​ , The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (​IUF​) have joined Amnesty International and others in calls for the immediate and unconditional releases of Madadi, Razavi, and Shahabi. Mr. Abdi received support from Education International (​EI)​ and Trades Union Congress (​TUC​) among others. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (​NASUWT​) ​awarded Abdi with its International Solidarity Award in 2018.

These are not isolated cases. Iranian authorities continue its rampant crackdown on civil society with at least 467 workers — including teachers, truck drivers and factory workers — who were called for questioning and subjected to abuse and torture in 2018. Many of them were given prison terms, and 38 received sentences for floggings amounting to a total of nearly 3,000 lashes.

This January, ​Esmail Bakhshi​, a spokesperson for the independent union of workers at the Haft Tappeh sugar cane industrial complex, and ​Sepideh Gholian​, a 24-year-old freelance journalist, were rearrested after speaking out about torture and harassment they suffered in detention last year, after being arrested at a peaceful demonstration. Bakhshi and Gholian still remain in prison, and, according to Amnesty, they might be subjects of ​further torture​.

Human rights and and union activists can mobilize to take action by ​signing and sharing the petition in support of this case launched by Group 11, writing appeal letters to ​Majid Takht Ravanchi and ​Ebrahim Raisi and participating in Group 11’s ​demonstration in front of the Iranian mission to the UN​.

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