Since late April, project workers in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries went on strike. Prior to the strike, project workers often save enough money to cover their living costs for one or two months. Some of them are from rural areas and therefore have the opportunity to engage in family agricultural work during the strike period and others do random things, such as working as drivers for e-taxis. Having some savings and working at the same time enables striking workers to survive during the strike and resist the financial pressure, which is usually one of the main reasons for them to break the strikes.
There is a long history of organized political and unionist struggles among oil and petrol workers. The most prominent labor strike during the first Pahlavi era (Reza Khan) was launched by the workers of this industry, under the leadership of ‘Southern Oil Workers’ Population’. One can claim that these structures can no more be traced in the oil and petrol workers’ current movement; instead, new structures have been formed, which of course maintain connections with politics and political struggles. It is important to remember that oil and petrol project-based workers were among the first sections of the worker class who went on strike during the Jina uprising in September 2022. During the strike, workers blocked the roads and allegedly almost 200 project-based workers were arrested by the security forces to prevent the strike from spreading.
In our previous article on this topic, we explained the changes in the structure of the labor force of the oil, petrol, and gas industries, where project-based workers are precarious. Therefore, besides other general reasons, such as state oppression, the old-fashioned union structures are not necessarily effective in organizing the workforce. Every casualized worker switches between several jobs in different companies all over the country during their career. Many end up working across different segments of the oil, gas and petrochemical sector; oil & gas refining, power generation, and affiliated steel production. As a result, project-based workers, have built their own platforms to organize several large nationwide strikes under repression. During the strikes, when the workers stop working and return to their places of residence, they meet other striking workers from different companies who have also returned to their cities during the strike. In this way, due to the small size of most of these cities, dozens of striking workers from different companies inevitably come into contact with each other in a mixture of cooperation, community clan, and family relationships, not only at the city level but also with other cities. The nationwide strike of project workers in 2021, led to the formation of several consultative gatherings of workers from different cities. In fact, in this form of organizing, the destabilized workers have found the necessary stability to coordinate strikes and protests in their cities. Of course, clan ties in a few cases can mean the contractor’s clan relationship with some of the workers makes them more willing to obey, but usually, these ties lead to greater unity among the workers. Furthermore, when workers leave their workplaces it is more difficult for security forces to disturb their strike or try to convince them to get back to work. Therefore, some criticisms of why they leave their workplaces during the strike, originate from lack of knowledge about the characteristics and conditions of the casualized workforce in the oil, gas and petrochemical industry. In order to coordinate this wide communication network, a page named “Official News Media of the Central Oil and Gas Campaign” was created on Instagram, which is active during the strike and stops after the strike ends. This page is managed by an admin whose only responsibility is to publish the received messages. In fact, the page has the title “wall newspaper” of the workers.
However, it is important to acknowledge that this official page occasionally adopts controversial positions in order to maintain security, considering its exposure to security forces, employers, and contractors. There have been instances where the page has taken measures that may be perceived as improper methods of ensuring security. Furthermore, the page admin sometimes faces pressure from the workers, leading to instances where it is compelled to backtrack on certain decisions.
A notable example of this was observed during a recent strike when the page explicitly stated that the strike was not of a “political” nature and urged workers to refrain from making “political” comments. However, despite these instructions, a significant number of workers who declared their participation in the nationwide strike made reference to the Jina Uprising and Kian Pirfalak, a child who tragically lost his life during the protests in Izeh. Surprisingly, the page later used the same language in their statements, aligning with the sentiments expressed by the workers. The dynamics between employers, contractors, and the page admin also present an intriguing aspect. Past experiences have revealed that following the conclusion of strikes, various employers and contractors have attempted to hire the page admin, essentially attempting to bribe them into halting future strikes.
The status of project workers
The occupation of a project worker entails exceedingly challenging job demands and working conditions, resulting in a significant number of casualties. The two primary causes for such unfortunate incidents are falls from heights and road accidents, as project workers are frequently required to commute between their workplace and their familial environment. These factors contribute substantially to the elevated fatality rate observed among project workers.
Moreover, project workers encounter additional difficulties in their line of work. The presence of substance abuse and the ready availability of drugs within the work environment pose significant challenges. Frequent unemployment further compounds the hardships experienced by these workers. Typically, the duration of a worker’s engagement in a specific project spans between one and three years, at best. During this period, the worker faces the constant risk of termination for any reason, adding to the uncertainty of their employment status.
In the event that a worker manages to complete the designated project without any work-related accidents, they often face a prolonged period of unemployment before securing their next project assignment. Consequently, many workers are compelled to transition to different fields of work throughout their careers. This often involves pursuing employment in industries such as refining, petrochemicals, steel, or mining, all of which fall under the purview of project work.
The aforementioned realities underscore the arduous nature of project work, as workers contend with precarious employment, occupational hazards, and the need to adapt to varying industry sectors throughout their professional journeys.
Prior to 2021, project workers adhered to a work schedule of 23 working days per month, allowing for 7 days of rest, out of which 2 days were allocated for commuting between the workplace and their homes. However, following the general strike of 2021, the work period was reduced to 20 working days, with 10 days off. During their working days, project workers are often accommodated in inadequate dormitories. These dormitories typically assign six individuals to a cramped 12-meter room, with all four supervisors sharing a single 12-meter room. Furthermore, contracting companies generally provide low-quality food to the workers.
While the salaries of project workers in the oil, gas, and petrochemical sectors are comparatively higher than those in other fields such as municipalities, mines, and railways, several factors contribute to dissatisfaction among project workers. One such factor is the comparison of their salaries with those of similar workers in the Gulf countries, which are located in close proximity to the project workers’ workplaces. While workers in these Gulf countries earn approximately 150 million tomans, welders in Iran receive 40 million tomans, fitter workers receive 30 million tomans, and auxiliary workers receive 15 million tomans. This significant wage disparity contributes to a sense of discontent among project workers. Additionally, the constant risks and hazards that project workers face further exacerbate their dissatisfaction and frustration.
Indeed, falling from heights and road accidents pose significant risks to project workers, resulting not only in fatalities but also in disabilities or unemployment due to severe injuries. These accidents have profound consequences for the affected workers, impacting their ability to continue working in their chosen fields. The unstable nature of project work further exacerbates these concerns, as every project worker must grapple with the possibility of future unemployment. Unemployment has become an inherent and expected aspect of the project worker’s employment trajectory.
Moreover, the prevalence of multiple contractors and intermediaries between the labor force and the main employer has created a situation where project workers often do not have direct contact with the individual ultimately responsible for their working conditions. This dynamic of privatization and intermediation fosters a sense of division and prevents unity among the workers. Contractors effectively serve as intermediaries and become the targets of worker protests, while the main employer remains hidden and shielded from direct confrontation with the workers. This arrangement perpetuates a power imbalance and hinders the ability of project workers to address their grievances and demand improved working conditions directly from the primary decision-makers.
The National question and project workers
In recent times, there has been a concerning trend where certain nationalist movements attempt to sow divisions among workers, particularly between Lor and Bakhtiari workers, and Arab workers who form the majority of project workers. They do so by exploiting national sentiments and invoking oppressive structures. However, it is crucial to recognize that project workers come from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds. During times of strike, the workers’ belonging to different nations does not create divisions among them. Solidarity and shared concerns unite them, transcending ethnic or national differences.
Traditionally, over the course of nearly a century, since the inception of the industry in Khuzestan, there has been a division of labor and skills among workers in the oil, gas, and petrochemical sectors. Bakhtiari workers have often been involved in pipe welding, while fitters typically hail from Abadan. Electrical and precision instrument work has commonly been undertaken by Arab workers, while there is also a significant presence of Kurdish and Fars workers in these sectors. It is important to note that, despite these divisions, ethnic and national conflicts among workers have been rare.
Throughout the years, the workers, regardless of their ethnic background, have fostered a sense of unity and solidarity. They have built strong bonds and camaraderie, characterized by lighthearted jokes and banter among themselves. During strikes, what unites the workers is not a shared national issue, but rather their common experience of class oppression and exploitation. However, it is worth acknowledging that structures rooted in national oppression can contribute to the emergence of resolute and determined qualities among the workers. The shared experience of belonging to an oppressed nation can also play a role in the spread and mobilization of strikes.
Despite this impressive class unity, the campaign page uses extreme forms of sexism to scare strike-breakers. For instance, those who return to work during the strike are threatened to be honor shamed. Honor in this context refers to the wife or daughters of the worker. This action rightfully received much criticism. These criticisms should not be ignored or brushed under the rug; they should be confronted. The underlying causes of such incidents must be rooted out, and a solution should be sought in solidarity with the workers’ struggles for their growth and advancement. However, this quest for a solution, despite the depth of the tragedy, should not be limited to mere condemnation; instead, it aims to address the disastrous situation from within. To do so, it is crucial to first understand the real situation. It is undeniable that patriarchy has a deep-rooted influence in society, including among workers and, in this case, project workers. Also, there is no doubt that the escalation of sexual violence and assault cannot be solely attributed to “patriarchy”. By referring to the patriarchal social foundations, it means that when women’s bodies continue to be the ultimate victims, despite the most practical explanations, it is connected to these social foundations.
The actual reality is that project workers, throughout their employment, especially during strike periods, face severe violence from employers, contractors, employer and contractor agents, and government security institutions. For workers who sacrifice everything and even risk losing their jobs by joining the strike, the actions of workshop managers, contractors, and strike-breakers, often relatives of the contractors, managers and employers, are no different from crimes. Contractors and employers take all kinds of actions every day during the strike to break it. These actions range from having numerous meetings with provincial supply councils and seeking assistance from security institutions to threatening striking workers and employing unskilled unemployed labor to keep the company operational and even lending labor forces to each other to prevent workshop closures. These actions can easily lead to the defeat of workers’ strikes, and failure in any strike always means the progress of employers and contractors in imposing inhumane conditions and even reclaiming the achievements of past strikes. In previous periods, workers have also tried other methods.
Months after the project workers went on strike in the summer of 2021, and when it became clear that the officials would not fulfil some of the promises they had made during the strike, in the early morning of Saturday, March 7, eleven cars caught fire in the vicinity of Rahavaran Fanon Memko dormitory, the government name for which is Be’sat Residential Complex (Shahrak). Mohsen Adibi, the head of public relations at the Special Economic Zone of Petrochemical Organization in Mahshahr, denied that the attack was “a terrorist attack” but stated that it had “security implications.” Hamid Danesh, the public relations manager of Rahavaran Fanon Petrochemical Company, also told Fars News Agency on Saturday afternoon that preliminary investigations indicated that the incident was “intentional, carried out by individuals outside the facility using flammable materials such as gasoline or diesel.” According to him, the windows of the guard cabins were shattered, and there were reports of clashes with security forces.
The notable point is that Be’sat residential complex is located next to the Jarrahi town and Jarrahi reeds. This dormitory serves as the residence for high-ranking employees of the petrochemical industry who are mostly non-native and flown-in workers. The poorest neighborhood of Jarrahi city, called the Mastic neighborhood, is adjacent to this dormitory. Both Be’sat residential complex and the dormitory are heavily guarded. The area is surrounded by fences and guards, and security posts are placed in all the streets of the Be’sat residential complex.
These kinds of actions, and even the slightest and mildest actions that show any form of resistance to strikebreakers and their employer supporters, immediately become a “security threat”, as can be seen. The protesting worker who has confronted a strikebreaker is no longer seen as a striking worker but rather as a “terrorist” or at least as a threat to national security, and the issue is no longer addressed within the framework of dealing with employer’s agents but is directly handed over to repressive government institutions.
In such a situation of helplessness and constraint, accompanied by pressure and violence from various capital and government forces, workers resort to the only method they perceive to exert pressure on strike-breakers. They take inspiration from their contractors, who have repeatedly stated that strikes and wage increases are “a matter of money and billions” and not an issue of honor that can be overlooked.
Eventually, some progressive workers managed to convince the campaign to remove the page of insults and threats against strike-breakers from the main campaign page. However, this does not mean accepting the current situation as the only solution. It is still necessary to seek a real solution by understanding the actual situation. The authenticity of these solutions is important because if they are not concrete and do not have a real impact, ultimately, no one will act upon them.
One of the most significant material resources among project workers, which can be taken into account to find real solutions, is the high participation of project workers’ partners in the strike. In fact, women are considered the main drivers of strikes. Typically, strikes begin when workers are under pressure from their partners and families due to poor living conditions and are encouraged to strike. According to project workers themselves, it can truly be said that without women, the strike would not have spread to such an extent.
However, this is not their only role in the struggles of project workers. With the initiation of a strike, a significant part of life management falls upon them. In addition to this, women constantly monitor the campaign and strike-related pages and provide their opinions on the content. They sometimes encourage and at other times express their criticism. Women also participate in household meetings and share their views on the process of issues during the strike. When project workers cannot bear the economic pressure during the strike, it is these women who resist and contribute to the workers’ resilience.
Young women and workers’ daughters sometimes have more active roles, including assisting with content production and managing online platforms by providing technical and software support. In principle, it can be said that the structure of strikes among project workers in the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries, as explained in the introduction, is a structure that heavily involves families, including women, due to workers returning to their place of residence during the strike. These women are by no means passive observers and actively engage with the concept of the strike and its organization.
What happened to the strike?
Iranian security agents, in collaboration between the IRGC Intelligence Organization and the Ministry of Intelligence, have arrested eight individuals accused of leading a labor strike in the South Pars region. The government official proudly declared the strike to be broken, emphasizing support for the oil industry and investors. The arrested individuals are accused of organizing the strike with the aid of foreign networks. The repressive apparatus of the Islamic Republic continues to function effectively, disregarding the workers’ demands. The news of the arrests resulted in the deletion of online pages involved in organizing the strike. Surprisingly, the media, human rights organizations, and labor groups have largely remained silent about the situation, leaving the workers voiceless against the repression they face.
The struggle of project workers has its own complexities and cannot be approached with a one-size-fits-all recipe for organising. The methods of organizing strikes and protests among project workers have important lessons for other casualized sectors. We can and should learn from the struggle of the oil project workers and apply it in a creative way in other places, and this is the best way to show solidarity with the workers who smile at the camera and close the workshop.