Iran: Covid crisis and workers’ struggles

Coronavirus patients at the Imam Khomeini Hospital in Tehran, Iran (photo: Mohsen Atayi, Wikimedia Commons)

According to the Iranian regime, towards the end of May, the number of people in Iran infected with covid-19 was over 140,000, and the number of people who have died as a result of the pandemic is said to be 7,500.

Against this are the figures of the World Health Organisation, which assumes that at least 375,000 people are infected and 22,500 have died.

In an attempt to rally support, Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has described the virus as a “biological attack on Iran” and as “produced by the USA”. This was met with a massive outcry on social media in Iran.

Release jailed activists from Haft Tapeh!

May 24th saw the dropping of charges and lifting of prison sentences imposed on several trade unionists and activists involved in the fighting in and around the Haft Tapeh sugar cane factory. Haft Tapeh is the biggest factory in the Khuzestan, southwestern Iran, and was privatised in 2015, at a very low price. One result of privatisation was the cutting of the workforce from 7,000 to 4,000. The privatization process forced the workers of the company to organise themselves to fight against the owners. Since then, the workers had to regularly struggle for the payment of their wages, for better working conditions and to challenge privatisation. Through these struggles, a trade union independent from the state started to develop within the company, which has become one of the most important workers’ organisations in the country.

In response, union members have been hit repeatedly with brutal repression, including prison sentences, whippings, and torture. This included Esmaeil Bakhshi and Mohammad Khanifar, two of the best-known representatives of the union, and who were amongst those released on 24 May. The reason for their release was the high pressure on the regime due to both continuing workers’ protests in Iran and solidarity campaigns both in Iran and internationally.

Since 2017, Iran has seen the start of a rebirth of independent workers’ organisations, leading strikes, and protests. Recent years have also seen demonstrations against the regime by youth and others. While these protests have not been continuous, the opposition’s strength has grown, putting the regime under pressure. Public protests by workers, particularly on non-payment of wages, have continued during the covid-19 pandemic raging throughout Iran. An additional issue now is the threat of covid-19 to the thousands who have been arrested over the past years and are left at the mercy of infection due to the bad conditions in Iranian prisons.

Protests by hospital staff

In the week up to 16 May, there were protests by care workers from Gilan, Lorestan, Qazvin and Hamadan provinces, in Tehran, in front of the Ministry of Health building. The protests were directed against the shortfalls in the Iranian health system. These include, for example, unacceptable working conditions, since in Iran, as in many other countries, there is far too little protective clothing. But in Iran this is also due to the fact that a lot of material is intercepted and hoarded by the Revolutionary Guards or otherwise seeps into the highly corrupt state apparatus.

To counteract this, the workers’ movement should take up the demand for workers’ control and administration of the supplies, including protective clothing, medicines, and medical equipment.

Protests have also taken place against a delay in the payment of wages and the use of temporary contracts, which are typical for the sector, and sometimes only last up to three months. It is necessary to demand contracts that offer the workers security, which is simply not given with three months’ contracts. Furthermore, the immediate payment of all outstanding wages, as well as the timely payment of future wages, must be demanded.

Taken together, all these demands pose the question of who runs the health sector and how is it financed? As other countries’ experience shows, the key is a combination of adequate finance for a publicly owned health service run under the control and administration of the workers.

Struggles in the Kerman mines

Three coal miners in Kerman went on strike on 20 April. The strike was firstly directed against the low and outstanding wages, bad working conditions, temporary contracts, and the planned privatisation of the company. Their working conditions are terrible, especially against the background of covid 19, because the strain on workers’ lungs from labouring in the mines makes them a particularly vulnerable group. It is, therefore, necessary to improve not only wages but also working conditions and, in particular, health and safety.

As there was no change in the regime and the management’s actions after the strike, the workers went on strike again on May 6th and 12th.

There were “talks” over working conditions but the representatives of the workers were not involved. Instead, discussions took place between the bosses of the mines and the government.

This shows, once again, that the Iranian regime has no interest in even pretending to involve self-organised workers in any decisions. The regime fears the development of independent workers’ organisations. This underscores the importance of the continuation of Iranian workers’ fight for the recognition of their trade unions and organisations.

It has long been necessary for trade unions and left parties from around the world to carry out campaigns of solidarity with workers organising politically and industrially in Iran. These campaigns should inform about the political and economic situation of working people in Iran. They must also attack the companies that carry out their bloody business with the Iranian regime. At the same time, genuine campaigns should keep a firm distance from the hypocritical attacks on Iranian repression by Trump and his friends in the Saudi dictatorship.

The following demands need to be at the heart of these campaigns:

  • Freedom for all political prisoners
  • End to torture and the death penalty
  • Freedom of association and an end to censorship
  • The right to trade union and political organisation

In order to be able to consistently lead the struggles of Iranian workers to fully achieve the above-mentioned demands in Iran, strong trade unions and an independent workers’ party need to be built.

But, at the same time, socialists argue that only a society ruled by representatives of the workers and toilers can resolve the chronic crises in Iran, win democratic rights, and put an end to poverty and oppression based on gender, religion, and ethnicity.

A workers’ revolution in Iran will stimulate workers and socialist forces in the Middle East and cut across reactionary Islamist ideas and forces.

A revolutionary upsurge could overthrow the Iranian regime. But the question would be posed of how to complete the revolution? The answer to this lies in the building of a mass workers’ party on the basis of a socialist programme. Such a party can play a key role in strikes, like that of the Kerman miners, and unite the various class and social movements in Iran to overthrow the regime and capitalism, as well.


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May 2020