Strike Under Repression: Iranian Oil Industry Project Workers’ Challenges
Project workers in the oil, gas, and petrochemical industry face a unique set of challenges when it comes to organizing and mobilizing for better working conditions. These temporary contract workers, often lack the stability and support of permanent employees, making them vulnerable to financial and political pressure. Workers experience different forms of organization that are often innovative and may even have the chance to be tried once. However, project workers have developed innovative ways to withstand these challenges. Despite facing security risks and police encounters and limited union structures, project workers continue to play an important role in the labor movement in Iran. In this article, we will explore the resent strike oil project workers, the new structures of organization that have emerged, and the ongoing political significance of project workers in the fight for workers’ rights and social justice.
This article is based on the Farsi version of this report.
Project workers (temporary contract workers) usually save up for one to two months before going on a strike, depending on the nature of their work. Those who come from villages often participate in family farming during the strike, while others find work driving for Snap (a company similar to Uber in Iran), or as taxi drivers, among other side jobs. This combination of saving and working allows the striking workers to withstand financial pressure, which is often a primary reason for strike breaks. By not needing money during the strike, they can continue to resist until their demands are met.
Oil workers have a rich history of organized political and trade union activities. One of the most significant labor strikes during Reza Khan’s era was led by the “Southern Oil Workers Community,” at 1929 with support from labor activists like Ali Omid, Yusuf Iftekhari, and Rahim Hamdad. Many of these activist were arrested and imprisoned until the end of Reza Khan’s reign on 1941 under the charge of acting against national security which today is still practicing by the government. However, it’s safe to say that such structures no longer exist among oil workers, but new forms of organization have emerged in their place.
The new structure among oil workers remains connected to politics and the struggle for workers’ rights. It’s important to remember that during the Jina uprising in Mehr 1401 (September/October 2022), oil project workers were among the first to go on strike. The striking workers raised political slogans and blocked roads, resulting in the arrest of nearly two hundred project workers to prevent the strike from spreading. This demonstrates the ongoing political significance of oil workers in the fight for labor rights and social justice.
Project workers are precisely the destabilized part within the labor force of the oil, gas, and petrochemical industry. For this reason, union structures may not be the most effective means of organizing them, in addition to facing general challenges such as repression.
Project workers have developed their own structures which were able to organize several large, nationwide strikes in the face of repression. Project workers often work various jobs in different companies throughout their careers. There are numerous instances of project workers who have held positions in multiple companies related to the oil, petrochemical, oil refinery, gas refinery, and power plant industries, all of which are subsets of the oil and gas and petrochemical sector. During their careers, project workers gain experience in a variety of roles, making them well-equipped to handle diverse challenges in their field.
An example of reports related to the strike of project workers in 2022.
The Islamic Republic’s policies on workforce destabilization have ironically led to a certain level of stability among project workers due to their frequent job shifts. However, this also means that it’s difficult for trade unions to form within individual workplaces. Due to the size of these companies and the significant number of project workers employed, these industries have become the main source of employment in some small towns and villages. As a result, project workers often comprise a significant portion of the local workforce.
When workers go on strike and return to their homes, they often find themselves in a city where other striking workers from different companies have also returned during the same time period. In small cities, striking workers from various companies are inevitably brought together during a strike. This creates an interconnected network of relationships based on cooperation, community, clan, and family ties. Beyond individual cities, this network extends to other locations as well. During the nationwide project worker strike in 1400 (2020), this network led to the formation of several consultative gatherings bringing together workers from different cities in a single location.
In this form of organizing, destabilized workers find the necessary “stability” to coordinate strikes and protests in their own cities. In some cases, the workers’ clan ties to contractors may affect their willingness to follow instructions, but more often than not, these ties lead to greater solidarity and alliances among the workers. Leaving the workplace during a strike prevents the repression apparatus from focusing their forces on companies workers and reduces unnecessary tensions with the suppression force. Additionally, it prevents contractors and employers from using promises and deception to return people to work. Through this form of cohesion, workers can form a relatively effective union and create pressure on those who do not strike or break the strike.
Workers coordinate the wide communication network through social network pages, which are often deleted after the strike. These pages are managed by one person whose main responsibility is to publish received messages. These pages are consider as a “newspaper” and serve as an important tool for organizing and mobilizing workers during strikes. In addition to social network pages, some workers with more experience and a history of struggle also have an influential role in the work and life environments.
As the social network page used for organizing strikes is often official among of the workers, its operator is usually known to the security agencies, employer, and contractor, which can result in some strange tactics to maintain security. The operator of the page may also come under pressure from labor bodies, resulting in the withdrawal of certain positions. For example, during the recent strike, the page repeatedly emphasized that the strike was not “political” and asked workers to refrain from making “political” comments.
However, when a significant number of workers featured in videos declaring their participation in the national strike of oil, gas, and petrochemical workers with the phrase “In the name of Rainbow God , the God of Kian, and Iranians,” the page also used the same phrase in subsequent statements. This phrase refers directly to the “Jina uprising” and “Kian Pirfalak“, one of the children killed during the uprising in the city of Izeh.
The interaction between employers and contractors with the person responsible for the organizing page is also interesting. In previous experiences, after the end of a strike, employers and contractors have attempted to bribe the person in charge of the page by trying to hire them in order to be able to disrupt the activities of the page for the future strikes. Despite these attempts, the page continues to play an important role in organizing and mobilizing workers during strikes by choosing another responsible by the workers.
Condition of project workers
Projects workers endure difficult job and working conditions, and the number of casualties in this fields is high. Fatalities are often due to falls from heights or accidents on the road during transportation, as project workers frequently commute between their workplace and family homes. The availability of drugs in the workplace and the constant experience of unemployment can also lead to addiction and further challenges for project workers.
The project worker’s tenure typically spans between one and three years at best. However, during this period, there is a looming risk of job termination for any reason. Assuming no work accidents or involuntary job loss, these workers must brace themselves for extended unemployment before securing another project-oriented position. It’s not uncommon for these professionals to switch their career trajectory, even within their industry. Often, they may be compelled to work in refinery, petrochemical, steel, and mining industries, all of which are subsets of project work.
Two years ago, project workers had to work 23 days a month and received 7 days off, including 2 days for commuting to and from their family home. However, following the 1400 (2021-2022) general strike, their schedule changed to 20 working days and 10 days off. Project workers now have to reside in substandard dormitories during their working days. These cramped quarters typically accommodate six workers in a cramped 12-meter room. Even the four masters share a single room. Moreover, the food provided by courier companies is usually of poor quality.
The salaries for project workers in the oil, gas, and radiation sectors are marginally higher than those in other industries such as municipalities, mines, and railways. However, several factors have led to dissatisfaction among these workers. One reason is the comparison of their wages with that of comparable workers in Persian Gulf countries, which are located in close proximity to their workplaces. While workers in these countries receive around 150 million tomans (Iran’s currency), a welder in Iran earns only 40 million, a fitter worker makes 30 million, and an auxiliary worker gets a paltry 15 million tomans.
Another reason for dissatisfaction among project workers is the constant risks they face. The most common accidents are falling from heights and road accidents, which can result in fatalities, injuries, and disabilities that leave workers unemployed. However, the most significant factor contributing to their dissatisfaction is the lack of job security in project work. Every project worker must constantly worry about being unemployed once the project is complete. For these workers, unemployment is an inherent aspect of their job, making it difficult to plan for their future and their families.
Moreover, the privatization and intermediation of various companies between workers and their main employer have created a significant barrier for project workers. In many cases, the workers are unable to directly communicate or negotiate with the main employer responsible for their working conditions. Instead, contractors mediate and play a role that can create divides, preventing workers from unifying and protesting. These contractors often bear the brunt of workers’ protests, while the main employer remains hidden from the eyes of the workers. Thus, the intermediation and privatization of these companies have contributed to the fragmentation and disunity among project workers.