Afghan returnees from Iran carry their backpacks as they arrive in Herat on August 4, 2018. (AFP)

By Jo Glanville

November 29, 2019

Altaf Rahimi has been working in Iran as a stonemason for six years. He has seen colleagues die in accidents at work, completed jobs for which he has never been paid and faced harassment from employers. Since the fall in value of the Iranian currency following the re-imposition of US sanctions last year, his wages are diminishing too.

“At present, the situation in Iran is deteriorating,” he says. “Wages are low, but everything else is expensive. When we work, we can barely earn our own living. The situation in Afghanistan is worse, as everyone knows: no jobs, no security.”

For Altaf and fellow laborers from Afghanistan, there is no redress when things go wrong. In a series of interviews for IranWire, workers revealed that exploitation is routine.

“There is a saying in Iran that workers’ wages should be paid before their sweat dries,” says Ali, who has been a construction worker in Iran since he was a teenager. Now 21, he has been smuggled across the border from Afghanistan three times in search of work. “Some Iranian employers dismiss Afghan workers after the work is done without paying their salaries,’ he says. “Most of them do not have residence permits, so they cannot complain.”

According to the International Organization for Migration in Afghanistan (IOM), since 2012, 2.3m Afghans have left the country – 63 percent went to Iran.

“Iranian employers try to exploit [Afghan workers] as much as possible,” says Maryam Mousavi, a human rights activist based in Kabul. “This is especially true in the construction and waste management industries where business owners try to cut corners all the time. Even though there are stringent laws against hiring illegals in Iran, many employers ignore them and hire Afghan workers.”

These issues are occasionally addressed by the six working groups the Afghan and Iranian governments have set up as part of a bilateral forum for high-level matters. “In some cases Afghan government officials seek to intervene on these issues,” a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration in Afghanistan told IranWire. “But given that many Afghans work in Iran illegally, representing them with employers is difficult.”

Vital for Afghanistan’s Economy

There are between 1.5 million and 2 million undocumented Afghans in Iran. According to the UN Refugee Agency, half a million Afghans have work permits. Families back home in Afghanistan depend on income from relatives working in Iran. According to inter-agency assessment findings in Afghanistan, during the drought crisis in 2018 upwards of 40 percent of households’ primary source of income in affected areas of Herat and Badghis provinces were remittance payments from family members working in Iran.

Hamed Hosseini, a stonemason, sends two-thirds of his income home every month. He first came to work in Iran when he was just 15 years old. At 21, he mostly sub-contracts construction projects and hires the workers himself. On one occasion, he agreed to do the stonework for a six-story building for 100 million tomans (USD$8,300) and hired seven laborers. The employer only paid him 17 million (USD$1,416) of the payment due and Hamed had to pay the workers out of his own pocket.

“I had to give all my savings to the workers because they had to send money to their families as well,” he says. ‘If I didn’t pay them, they would quit. I still thank God because they continued the work due to our friendship.’

In 2015, the Central Bank of Afghanistan estimated the inflow of remittances into Afghanistan at US$342m, equivalent to 1.7 percent of GDP, of which 40 percent came from Afghans in Iran. A study by the International Fund for Agricultural Development suggests that the figure could be grossly underestimated and that remittances may total as much as 15-18 percent of GDP. Informed sources in Afghanistan believe that the figure may even be higher than 20 percent. The lack of financial information, due to the informal routes through which money is transferred, makes it difficult to reach a definitive figure. Afghan workers in Iran are clearly not just providing for the survival of their own families, but are vital for Afghanistan’s economy.

Hamed Abdullah, a human rights activist in Herat, believes that the Iranian government would benefit from giving all Afghan workers legal status. “They should give them visas because they can work harder and pay taxes,” he says. “At the moment, because most Afghans work illegally, they’re exploited by the employers, they don’t have protection and they work in substandard conditions and at the same time they don’t pay taxes to the Iranian government.”

All the Afghan laborers who spoke to IranWire had worked for employers who failed to pay them. However, many also reported experiences of positive treatment too.

“Not all of them neglect the rights of Afghan workers,” says Ali. “Some businessmen and engineers are very good people, paying workers’ salaries month after month. For example, one of them always said: ‘You have been forced to leave your country and your family and come to work here to earn halal [honest] money’ and he always prayed for us when he paid us our wages.”

Last year, a record number of 773,000 Afghans returned home from Iran, a 67 percent increase over 2017. The IOM is predicting that figures this year will return to the average of approximately 450,000. “The vast majority of returnees are illiterate and/or unskilled,” says a spokesperson for the IOM. There is not enough employment to meet demand and the population is growing: the World Bank has projected that the national population will double to 70 million by 2050.

Rife Discrimination

For Hamid, however, there is no prospect of going home. “Currently the working situation is very poor,” he says. “But because the situation in Afghanistan is not good, I am forced to stay here.”

One Afghan worker who wanted to remain anonymous told IranWire that he now pretends to be Iranian to find employment, following the discrimination he has faced. At 27, he has lived in Iran since his childhood and speaks the dialect well. He has calculated that he is owed between 40 million and 50 million tomans (USD$9,500-USD$12,000) by employers who have failed to pay him. One employer even threatened to call the police when he demanded his wages.

“Unfortunately, the way many of our Afghan brothers and sisters are treated in Iran is not worthy of a civilized Muslim nation like Iran,” says Javid Nadem, head of Herat Province Office for Immigrants and Returnees. “They’re regularly humiliated at work, at school and are denied their basic human rights only because they are Afghans.”

Naser has been working in Iran since he was 21. Now 30, he has been able to work legally with a one-year visa. The devaluation of the currency has had a dramatic impact on his wages and the remittances he sends home.

“Three years ago, one million tomans of our salary was equivalent to 17,000 Afghanis. Now it is about 5,000,” he says. ‘I once told this fact to an Iranian employer and he said, ‘If it doesn’t work for you, why don’t you just go back to Afghanistan?’

“Well, of course, if we had other choices and did not suffer from poverty, war and unemployment in Afghanistan, we would have stayed in our own country. Who wants to stay away from his family or go to the bathroom once a week and live in a hut?”

Naser’s current employer told IranWire that he prefers to work with Afghan laborers: “Iranian workers think they should not go through any hardship. They demand higher wages than Afghans. When for a short time Naser was in Afghanistan, I changed three workers within three months. They demanded double the money and had not even half of Naser’s efficiency.”

It’s an example of a mutually dependent but exploitative relationship, even if Naser is luckier than most to have a boss who appreciates him. With little opportunity of work back home, Afghan workers have few choices.

“We are stuck here,” says Altaf Rahimi. “We have no way back, no way forward.”

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.