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The Arab-majority region in Iran's restive south-west has been swept up in a wave of strikes and protests by workers upset by non-payment of wages by bankrupt industries.

Although the protests have been peaceful, the government has responded with force but has failed to meet any of the demands lodged by workers who are facing increasing hardships. Worker unrest comes a year after similar protests by workers in the port and ship-building industries in Mohammerah (Khorramshahr)

In Ahwaz City, a peaceful protest by 150 workers from a mothballed paper mill in Shoushtar (Tostar) was broken up by Iranian forces using tear gas and baton charges, with five workers reportedly beaten and injured, according to Radio Farda.

Abu Al-Fazel Abidini, a journalist from Ahwaz, told Radio Farda: "Over the past year and a half, these workers have been repeatedly asking the Khuzestan provincial government to reopen the factory and receive their delayed salaries. They have only received one or two months of salaries and haven't been given any official response to their demands."

He added: "They also held three demonstrations in front of President's office, but they were met with ruthless attacks [by the security services]. On Tuesday [25 September], workers gathered to talk to the provincial governor to tell him their problems, including seven months of salary arrears. They also demanded that insurance be paid and the factory reopened following its closure due to financial problems. These workers have suffered many problems during recent months. Most of these workers are tenants and eleven of them have been hospitalised in mental hospitals and have psychological problems. Some of the workers faced family problems which have ended in divorce. The 230 factory workers cannot send their children to the schools and universities due to financial problems."

The clamp-down at the paper mill comes weeks after 600 workers at the "Gama" company and 120 workers at "Pars Hassas" in Asloeyyiah went on strike due to three months of salary arrears. The Gama company sacked 40 workers involved in the strike. The Pars Hassas company, a refinery contractor, has also threatened to dismiss striking workers. (click here for further details)

On 25 August, workers at Hafttapeh (Saba-atlal) Sugar Cane Company sent a letter to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) informing them that if the authorities did not respond to their demands for payment, they will resume industrial action. They had staged strike action on 11 July. A labour activist said: "We have held 15 strikes since the beginning of the last year, involving thousands of workers and clerks at this company, but each time the authorities failed to abide by their pledge to solve the problems."

Worker demands at the sugar company include:
- the payment of all salaries in arrears
- an end to the sale of foreign sugar on the Iranian market by "mafia" groups
- the right to labour representation
- a rise in salaries to reflect the rising cost of living brought about by poor weather
- right for workers to participate in the election of workers' representatives
- retirement of those workers who have reached retirement age
- provision of adequate safety equipment
- dismissing the company's board of directors
- ending threats to workers.

Labour activists have set a deadline of 27 September for the government to respond to their demands or they will resume industrial action and demonstrations in Ahwaz. A labour activist at Hafttapeh said: "If we had a trade union it would defend our rights, just like the bus workers syndicate in Tehran."

Privately-owned sugar mills in Khuzestan have suffered as a result of trade liberalisation, which has led to unrestricted imports of sugar. This has led to bankruptcy, non-payment of wages, redundancy and civil unrest.

According to labour activists, the Ministry of Intelligence has taken over the management of the sugar cane projects. However, Mesbah Yazdi, the head of an Iranian sugar "mafia" gang responsible for under-cutting locally produced sugar with cheap foreign imports, has called for the privatisation of "failed" sugar mills taken over by the government.

On 12 September, the Human Rights and Democracy Activists of Iran group published a statement in support of the 5,000 striking workers in Hafttapeh. The group also supported demands for
- an elected committee of workers' representatives
- ending the casualisation of labour and making temporary positions permanent
- an increase in salaries
- providing housing to workers

The sugar industry is built on the suffering of Ahwazi Arabs, dating back to 1962 when US businessman David Lillington's investment in the sector led to the confiscation of 68,500 hectares of Arab-owned land for the purpose of sugar cane cultivation (click here for more information).

Nasser Bani Assad, spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, said: "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power proclaiming that he would tackle corruption and poverty. Under his administration, the situation facing Ahwazi workers is worsening. Instead of backing the workers, he is calling out the troops to repress them. If they refuse to work, they lose their jobs. This is not an option in a region like Ahwaz (Khuzestan), where unemployment is high, particularly among ethnic Arabs.

"After months of wage arrears many feel they have nothing to lose by going on strike and taking to the streets in protest. Workers are struggling to feed their families and pay for housing. Yet, the Ahwaz region is one of the most oil rich in the world. The oil revenue is going straight into the pockets of the mullahs while workers are forced into virtual slavery. Iran is breaking international labour codes and should be chastised by the international community for its poor treatment of workers."