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Off the buses

*Relevant rights:* the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23.1 states: ‘Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.’ Article 23.4 states: ‘Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his [sic] interests.’ The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 8, asserts ‘the right of everyone to form trade unions and join the trade union of his [sic] choice.’

Most employers would rather not have to deal with trade unions. Some will go to great lengths to keep them out. In extreme cases, others will combine with governments to suppress them entirely – despite the explicit right to form them enshrined in numerous international conventions on human rights. Such has been the experience of bus drivers in Tehran.

The Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (Sherkat-e Vahed) was originally formed in 1968 but was disbanded by the revolutionary authorities in the early 1980s. In its place a ‘Workers’ House’ and ‘Islamic Labour Council’ were formed by the Government and the company. But the bus drivers never accepted them.

In 2003, activists began to re-establish an independent union. Since then, they have been victimized by their employer and harassed by their government.

Between March and June 2005, 17 union activists were dismissed from the company. Despite this, Sherkat-e Vahed was formed on 3 June. Seven leaders and members of the union were charged with public order offences following a protest against unpaid wages – bus drivers in Tehran left their lights on as they drove passengers around the city. On 22 December agents of the Intelligence Ministry arrested 14 trade unionists, including the union’s President, Mansour Osanloo. Some 3,000 workers walked out in protest – 17 more unionists were arrested. Meanwhile, trade unionists’ bank accounts were frozen and wage payments were blocked.

On 2 January 2006 at least 5,000 members of the union gathered at the Azadi Stadium Complex in Tehran demanding the immediate release of Mansour Osanloo. Letters of protest from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) reached ‘the inescapable conclusion that a new pattern of repression against free and independent trade union activists is emerging in Iran’. Trade unions in Yemen, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Canada, US, Britain, Austria, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Lithuania, Australia, New Zealand/Aotearoa, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand also sent protest letters to the Iranian Government.

A few days later, eight members of the union’s Executive Board were summoned by the court and not released. The Government and its security forces, as well as the bus company, used intimidating and repressive tactics to prevent a planned strike. Bus drivers were beaten and forced to drive buses. Nevertheless, a strike began in some areas of Tehran. Some 1,300 members of the union were arrested. Hundreds of drivers and their wives, and even children, were incarcerated in Evin prison. To crush the strike, the security forces used tear gas and batons and threatened to shoot the strikers. Workers jailed in Evin prison decided to go on hunger strike.

On 1 February a group of family members and spouses gathered outside the Majles (parliament). They were confronted by security forces. On 7 February about 200 workers were released, but the company refused to reinstate them. In July the ITF and ICFTU made a formal complaint to the International Labour Organization (ILO) about the mass arrests. More releases followed as protests culminated with a worldwide day of action on 15 February.

In July lawyers met with Mansour Onsaloo for the first time since his imprisonment and on 9 August he was released. Amnesty International announced that it would consider him a prisoner of conscience if he were convicted on charges relating to his trade union activities or to freedom of expression.

On 19 November Onsaloo and two union board members were on their way to the Labour Ministry when plain-clothes officers from the Intelligence Ministry threw Osanloo into their car and drove away, firing shots into the air. International protests won his release, but he was arrested again on 27 November. The Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office of Tehran demanded 30 million Toman ($33,000) bail. His family refused to pay – they had already paid 150 million Toman in August. On 19 December he was released again.

On 24 February 2007 Mansour Osanloo was summoned to court. The charges against him were ‘attempts to jeopardize national security’ and ‘propaganda against the state’. In June he went to London for the ITF Road Transport Workers’ Section Annual Meeting and then toured Europe.

On 10 June the union’s Vice-President, Ebrahim Madadi, was beaten severely by seven men. On 3 July he was detained for alleged ‘public disorder’ and released the following day after protests.

A few days later, Mansour Osanloo was kidnapped by unidentified men from a bus near his home. The ITF and International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) organized an International Action Day in solidarity, which was supported worldwide. More members of the union were arrested.

The spouses of Ebrahimi Madadi, Davoud Razavi and Homayoun Jaberi were allowed to visit Evin prison to meet their husbands. Mrs Parvaneh Osanloo and her sister-in-law were prevented by secret police from visiting UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour, despite protests by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.

There is, as yet, no sign that either the Government or the company intend to honour their international legal obligations and desist from persecuting trade union members. Mansour Osanloo remains in danger of losing his sight as a result of injuries inflicted by the authorities. In October 2007 he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for ‘endangering national security’.

*Medal – Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (Sherkat-e Vahed)*

New Internationalist issue 408 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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