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Iran: "Haft Tapeh workers are starving", Ahwazi workers' slogan

Three thousand workers from the Haft Tapeh (Saba atlal) Sugar Cane Company held demonstrations outside the Khuzestan provincial governor's office in Shoush city (Susa) on Saturday demanding their wages.

A protesting Ahwazi Arab worker told Radio Farda that "the Islamic Republic of Iran helps Palestine and Arab countries, how come they have money to help them but they don't to pay us?"

Another worker believes that the currently the company management policy is "exhausting labours and encouraging them to leave the company in order to possess their lands."

The workers intend to continue their peaceful demonstrations outside the governor's office.

On 25 August, workers at Haft Tapeh 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."