“Tired, desperate and hungry” is how an Iranian contract oil worker described himself and his colleagues who in recent days went on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions.
The strikes in Iran’s energy industry, which began on June 22 and have spread to more than 60 factories across eight provinces, are thought to be the most extensive in some 40 years.
Observers say they appear to be larger than previous ones in terms of the number of workers protesting and their geographical scope, which includes plants in the southwestern Khuzestan and central Isfahan provinces, as well as the capital, Tehran.
They’re also different than previous ones, notes Peyman Jafari, a historian on Iran at Princeton University who is writing a book about the country’s oil industry.
“First, they reflect the shift in the Iranian oil industry that was traditionally concentrated around oil wells and refineries mainly in Khuzestan," he told RFE/RL. "In the last two decades, new locations have emerged around gas and petrochemical centers such as Asaluyeh.
“Secondly, the emergence of these new energy frontiers has been accompanied by the emergence of ‘special economic zones’ that are in many ways exempt from existing regulations, thus creating precarity and pollution,” Jafari said. He added that workers have built on the experience and networks of previous strikes, including the 2020 strike in Iran’s South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf.
There is a limit to the practical challenge that these strikes pose, as they mainly involve contract workers.... That situation could change, however, if and when they are joined by the oil industry’s permanent workforce."-- Peyman Jafari, Princeton University
Contract workers in Iran’s oil, gas, and petrochemical industry -- including technicians and tradesmen -- say they are being denied their rights despite working under tough conditions, including in extremely high temperatures and living in unhygienic dormitories. Some have complained that they haven’t been paid in months and bemoan being away from their families.
“It’s true that we have tolerated this for a long time, but some of the workers have had enough," an unnamed worker told rouydad24.com, adding that workers are also being crushed by the rising cost of living.
Many videos of workers participating in the strikes -- dubbed Campaign 1400 in reference to the current year on the Iranian calendar -- have been posted online. Some are seen walking away from the plants, while others are seen gathering in their workplaces to protest.
The strikes in the strategic energy industry highlight the challenges Tehran faces as it negotiates a revival of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that brought the country some economic relief in exchange for curbs on its atomic program.
U.S. sanctions reimposed under then-U.S. President Donald Trump -- who exited the accord in 2018 -- have crippled an Iranian economy that has also been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and years of state mismanagement.
The dire economic situation has pushed many people into poverty in recent months and workers with low wages have struggled to get by.
Iran’s official inflation rate has reached 50 percent, with the price of food staples rising sharply. Many Iranians say they can’t afford to buy meat, fruit, or vegetables.
Contractors in the energy sector are demanding 120 million rials (about $500) per month to have a decent standard of living amid the soaring prices. They have also called for their wages to be paid on time, safe and hygienic work environments, and 10 days off per month. Workers in Iran often work seven days a week. The workers have also criticized their securitized work environment and called for the right to form unions.
Iran has in the past used force against workers demanding better wages, sending some to prison. Yet labor protests have been on the rise in the country in various sectors, including in education and health care.
Last week, social media reports suggested that 700 contractors had been fired at the Tehran Oil Refinery.
But Shaker Khafayi, a spokesman for the refinery, later dismissed the reports as “a sheer lie” and told journalists that a subcontractor had laid off 35 of its workers.
The parliament’s Energy Committee held a special meeting over the weekend attended by Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh and representatives of intelligence bodies to discuss issues and problems of regular oil employees, Iranian media reported.
After the meeting, Zangeneh was quoted by the state news agency IRNA as saying that the salaries of regular oil-industry employees will be fixed by the end of the Iranian month of Tir, which ends on July 21.
WATCH: Workers on strike at the Rejal petrochemical complex in Mahshahr in Iran's southwest:
But he was vague about the problems of the contractors, saying, “We will pay whatever belongs to them based on the labor law,” while adding that “their extrajudicial demands are a different matter."
Jafari expects strikes in the energy industry to continue in the near future.
“However, there is a limit to the practical challenge that these strikes pose, as they mainly involve contract workers who are primarily involved in construction work and lack the power to impact the production process in the oil industry," he said. "That situation could change, however, if and when they are joined by the oil industry’s permanent workforce."
U.S. based journalist Behrang Zandi told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that the strikes could pose a challenge to the country's president-elect, hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who will be inaugurated in early August.
Raisi has yet to offer a concrete plan about how he will deal with the country’s mounting economic problems.
“It’s not clear what strategy the government of Raisi will use to respond to the strikes that oil workers have said will continue in [August] until their demands are met,“ Zandi said.