By Javad Motevali
November 20, 2020
Today marks the 62nd birthday of the Khaneh Kargar, better known as the Workers’ House and Iran’s official national labor organization. Formally established on November 19, 1958, the Workers’ House has a turbulent history. Over the past four decades, under the direction of three notable officials of the Islamic Republic, this body – ostensibly set up to promote the interests of workers across the country – has become a force for extinguishing nascent labor movements rather than supporting them.
Since the first trade union was established in Iran in 1905, at a small printing house in Tehran, the country’s labor movement has experienced more than its fair share of ups and downs. In 1929 the country ratified its first Labor Safety Act, one of its most progressive gestures to date in favor of workers’ rights. Gradually trade union presence expanded in factories across the country and finally an umbrella organization, the Workers’ House, was created by a consortium of workers’ guilds in 1958.
During the Pahlavi era, the Workers’ House was affiliated to two distinct political parties. From 1965 to 1967, the national trade union center drew closer to the Iran Novin Party – a royalist group supporting the Shah of Iran, which controlled both the cabinet and parliament from 1964 to 1975 – and 1967 it formally joined the Iran Novin Party’s own Workers’ Organization. From 1975 onwards, however, after the Rastakhiz Party came to power, it pragmatically switched allegiances and began operating as the Workers’ Organization of the Rastakhiz Party.
This single-party approach, however, did not last much longer. The Iranian-born labor activist Mehdi Kouhestani-Nejad, an advisor to the International Trade Union Confederation, tells IranWire that following the shift, unionists quickly came to the conclusion that they could either stand by and watch the movement – and even the Workers’ House itself – become subordinate to the Rastakhiz Party, or could actively penetrate the party-political system to pursue their own demands. By 1978, as the single-party system was disintegrating in Iran, the Workers’ House had expanded its reach across the political spectrum become a recognized symbol of the diverse labor movement in Iran.
Annihilation in the the Islamic Republic
The 1979 Islamic Revolution shook the Workers’ House to its core, and decimated its membership. From the very first days that followed the fall of the Shah, agents of the Islamic Republican Party began infiltrating the Workers’ House to identify its most prominent and problematic activists, with a view to handing them over – on various pretexts – to execution squads. In the end, in the first three years after the revolution, most of those who had been active in the Workers’ House were killed, imprisoned, or forced to flee the country in fear of their lives.
Even the shell of what had been the Workers’ House was not permitted to remain. At the outset of the Iran-Iraq war in late 1980, senior officials of the Islamic Republic declared all labor institutions illegal and closed them down. Guilds, syndicates and political groups were disbanded, publications on workers’ rights were banned, and activists were stripped of their titles and prosecuted.
A Distinct Entity, Under the Old Name
After the ceasefire with Iraq, three politicians – Ali Rabiei, then-labor branch head of the Islamic Republican Party, Hossein Kamali, and Alireza Mahjoub – sought and received permission from the Interior Ministry to formally re-establish the Workers’ House. Now dominated by Islamist workers, the new incarnation of the Workers’ House was eventually legalized on January 5, 1992.
The organization’s own website betrays the extent of its ideological severance from its predecessor. The “Introduction” page declares: “The Workers’ House is an organization that believes in Velayat-e-Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) and adheres to the Constitution to guide and organize the forces defending the rights of the deprived and oppressed to achieve the goals of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
In the three decades since its re-formation, the same three individuals, Rabiei, Kamali, and Mahjoub, have retained control over the Workers’ House’s operations. All three were also involved in the establishment of a political splinter group, the Islamic Labor Party, in January 1999. This mode of “confiscation” of the Workers’ House, Mehdi Kouhestani-Nejad tells IranWire, was not dissimilar to what had occurred in the pre-revolutionary period. First the Workers’ House was permitted to exist as a labor branch of the Islamic Republic Party. Then, once formally reinstated, it became a subsidiary of the Islamic Labor Party: just as it had been subservient to dominant parties during the Pahlavi era.
For the past three decades, Alireza Mahjoub has held the position of secretary-general of the Workers’ House. He also served as an MP from 1996 to 2000, from 2001 to 2004 and from 2005 to May 2020. During his various periods in office he sat on parliamentary committees related to social and labor affairs. Fellow co-founder Hossein Kamali, who is also a member of the Central Committee of the present-day Workers’ House, served as Iran’s Minister of Labor and Social Affairs from 1989 to 2001.
Ali Rabiei, meanwhile, has a rather different past. He worked for many years in the upper ranks of the Intelligence Ministry – under the pseudonym Brother Ebad – and later for the Supreme National Security Council, before finally taking up the role of Labor Minister from 2013 to 2018.
“Every time his name is mentioned,” Mehdi Kouhestani-Nejad tells IranWire, “I am reminded of the book Spying on Ghosts by [journalist and security insider] Reza Golpour.
“The book mentions that Rabiei once had several people arrested in the north of the country and transported to Tehran in the trunk of a car, to be handed over to Evin Prisob. But they died on the way. I can’t think of anything else about him, and I have not seen a single positive move from him with regard to Iranian workers.”
A Wealth of Resources and a Dearth of Action
The Workers’ House currently has 52 provincial branches across Iran and 22 affiliated university centers. It is handsomely funded through the annual fees of its more than two million members, as well as through government grants. But despite its impressive level of resourcing, the organization has done little to advance its members’ interest or resolve labor disputes.
For more than two years now sporadic protests, sit-ins and strikes have been taking place at the Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Agro-Industry Company in Khuzestan. Workers have alleged disastrous mismanagement and non-payment of wages since a privatization deal in 2015. Dozens of these workers and representatives have been arrested, summoned to court or threatened in connection with their industrial action.
On September 9, 2019, the deputy secretary-general of the Workers’ House, Hassan Sadeghi, finally broke his silence on the issue. “Heavy court rulings against workers are not proportionate under the Constitution or labor laws,” he said. “The Workers’ House has always been opposed to this kind of treatment of the working classes and of protesters, especially in recent years, when the condition of the factories was not favorable and protests have taken place as a consequence.”
This delayed non-intervention is one of the strongest statements to have been issued on behalf of the Workers’ House to date. Moreover, publicized disputes such as that of the Haft-Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate are the tip of the iceberg, says Kouhestani-Nejad. “Labor laws in which workers’ rights have the most minimal significance, and the securitization of trade unions, are among the issues that have incensed Iranian workers today,” he says. “Not only has the Workers’ House not helped to solve these problems, but it has reduced any possible solutions to ashes.”
Despite opposition from workers’ representatives, successive labor laws ratified in Iran have paved the way for a situation today in which more than 90 percent of workers in Iran are on temporary contracts. As such, the overwhelming majority of workers are excluded from legal protections. Workplaces with fewer than 10 employees are also exempt from minimum wage requirements.
Officials within the Workers’ House and its secretary-general, Kouhestani-Nejad says, have “no concern” for resolving these dire problems. “Not only have they done nothing, but they also threw stones at the situation to prevent it from improving. The growth of workers’ movements meant pushing them back; it is only in a suffocating atmosphere that these gentlemen are able to receive their subsidies and rents. As such, the Worker’s House has become their backyard, and their piggy bank.”
The Workers’ House has its own national news agency, ILNA. Like other news outlets in Iran it is subjected to extreme censorship, with the entire five-member team on the “Workers Department” – including editor Esmail Mohammad Vali – dismissed in 2015 after publishing reports on issues such as job insecurity and mass redundancies. Last September a reporter on social issues, Yasmine Khalegian, was fired for failing to comply with the agency’s political position, while its social media administrator was fired in April 2020 for publishing a satirical cartoon on Telegram.
Ultimately, Kouhestani-Nejad says, given the track record of the second incarnation of the Workers’ House, it is no longer deserving of the title. Instead, this seasoned labor rights campaigner suggests it be dubbed the Securitate: the popular term for the secret police of Socialist Romania, more than half of whose members happened to be workers.