Brazil Should Support the Struggle of Iranian Trade Unionists (By Mansour Osanlou)
(A version of this opinion piece was published in Portuguese in the Brazilian newspaper, Estadao on March 22, 2014)
By Mansour Osanlou
As an Iranian labor activist, I have always looked for models that my country can follow to improve. Striking a balance between worker rights, economic developments, international trade, and vital social-programs is indeed no easy task, especially for countries with troubled pasts.
Charged with unprecedented challenges after transitioning to a democracy in 1985, Brazil has pleasantly surprised the world. Brazil today is a global player that has become a model for emerging states like Iran to follow, particularly with regards to labor rights and human rights.
As a labor organizer and head of the Tehran Bus Drivers Union, I am well aware of the obstacles workers face in Iran. For most Iranians, wages are dangerously low, health and safety in the workplace is non-existent, and needed social programs are being slashed.
Yet, in Iran, advocating for the rights workers and the poor is out of the question. Even contemplating organizing union meetings or engaging in strikes, for example, can bring about devastating consequences.
I know this from personal experience. I was imprisoned for more than five years. I was physically tortured, and threatened with death and rape. My wife and children were harassed, jailed, and abused. My alleged crime: advocating for higher wages for bus drivers.
Can a country progress when its government doesn’t tolerate the divergent views of its own citizens? Can ordinary Iranians find dignity in work when they can’t advocate for better conditions?
Contrary to the new government’s public relations efforts, the human rights situation has not improved since President Hassan Rouhani assumed office eight months ago. And for workers, things are bleak.
The new government has set a minimum wages that cover only a fourth of what working families actually need to sustain their livelihoods. On average, five workers die everyday in unsafe construction sites and factories. Workers that complain can be called into “Herasat (Security) Offices” – found in most public companies, technical guilds, and all universities, and staffed by representatives of the Ministry of Intelligence – and dismissed from their jobs. And while recent sanctions have certainly hurt the Iranian economy, most of these and other anti-worker policies pre-date sanctions.
Just a couple of weeks ago, two workers from the Tehran Bus Company who were seeking to reopen the company’s union were arrested. Hassan Saedi and Morteza Komsari had carried out informal meetings where they taught workers the basics of advocacy, highlighted the rights they were entitled to, and gathered signatures for a petition advocating for the union’s reopening. After collecting over 2,000 signatures, they handed their petition over to the Iranian Ministry of Labor. A week later, they were arrested without any real explanation and amid accusations of “acting against public order and national security”.
Whereas Iran continues to take steps backwards, Brazil has made significant improvements over the last decade. As a child worker himself and a member of the ABC metalworkers union, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva carried out significant reforms and advocated for the dignity of workers. Victories like when Lula’s government’s successfully secured wage increases for 40,000 São Paulo metalworkers in 2010 have become a source of inspiration for us in the Iranian labor movement and a road map of where we can go.
Iranian workers don’t just need Brazil to be a role model, however. Brazil must also be an ally in the pursuit of human rights.
During Lula’s visit to Iran in 2010 I wrote to him from prison, asking him to advocate for human rights and for the freedom of workers to organize. Lula was a former prisoner of conscience himself and had offered asylum to an Iranian woman then sentenced to be stoned. President Dilma Rousseff, also a former political prisoner, has stood with everyday Iranians by voting twice at the United Nations Human Rights Council to appoint an independent expert, a Special Rapporteur, to specifically monitor the situation of human rights in Iran.
Without international pressure, the Iranian government will continue to intimidate and jail workers and other human rights advocates without consequence.
Iranian prisons are cruel places. For 7 months and 23 days, I was held in solitary confinement, in a concrete hole barely long enough to fit my body. Physical and psychological abuses, such as mock executions, are considered valid interrogation techniques. My brother Afshin, also a trade unionist, died in prion last June after his captors refused him medical attention. There are at least 900 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Iran, at least 30 of who are labor activists.
Lula, President Rousseff and the Worker’s Party, despite its many challenges, have tried to do the right thing for their country. I hope that when given the chance, they will advocate for ours as well. Positioned as a balanced global leader, Brazil’s decisions have a major impact, even in the Middle East. International pressure helped me regain my freedom a few years ago, proving the power the international community can have when it insists on accountability and justice. On March 24, Brazil will once again have the power to influence a United Nation Human Rights Council vote on the human rights situation in Iran. A vote in favor of the resolution will give Brazil the opportunity to globally prove its commitment to labor movements and to honor the hundreds of Iranians fighting for their human rights.
Mansour Osanlou is a leading workers rights and human rights activist imprisoned on several occasions in Iran. He is the former head of the Tehran Bus Workers Syndicate.