Friday, November 23, 2007

Interview With Mansour Osanloo

Below is a copy of an interview with Mansour Osanloo that has been posted on the ITF's website. It makes for a very enlightening read abou the situation of the workers in Iran:

Iranian trade union leader Mansour Osanloo has been relentlessly persecuted for his efforts to secure an independent trade union and living wages for bus workers. Yet, as he explained in an interview with Transport International shortly before his latest arrest, he does not see himself as anti-government, and believes there are signs of hope for workers’ rights and freedoms in Iran

Did you expect to leave Iran and travel to London safely?

I was very surprised. I was expecting them to come and take me away right up until the flight took off. Then I finally felt that I was OK. My family and colleague came to the airport with me, then they called me continually until I boarded the airplane to ask where I was and if I was safe.

Why do you think the authorities allowed you to go?

Firstly, after my time in prison, and the 200 hours under interrogation, I think the authorities found out I was not anti-government. Secondly, it may be because of all the support I received from my colleagues in my own union, the support for my freedom.

Thirdly, it may be because of international support, from the ITF to the International Trade Union Confederation. There has been so much action and so many letters sent to the Iranian government.

I think another reason may be the media, including the internet, satellite, all those magazines outside of Iran. And my family at home has received so many phone calls supporting me.
What are conditions like in Iran for ordinary working people?

We are in a very precarious age. So many things are changing in our country. We are in two different periods: dictatorial and democratic. There are also cultural changes in Iranian society at present.

Our society is very complex. And in this complex society we still see a feudal economic norm that belongs to a different period, 300 or 400 years ago. Things are changing, the TV and the radio are transforming society, but there are still peasants who live in that period of time.

How did the movement to reform an independent trade union begin?

Because of eight years of war, dating back to 1980, all trade union organisations were closed down. So many of our trade unionists were arrested, they ran away and they were imprisoned.

After 1990 the new Labour Law was established. Islamic leaders were fundamentally against any industrial congregation. More importantly they were against any type of election in the workplace and they tried to help the government, even the intelligence services. During this period they tried to manipulate any kind of workplace election that did take place.

They created a lot of unhappiness, and this and the fact that they were not the voice for the workers, it gave us a chance to evaluate our ideas.

"Each time I went to court, when the judges saw my case, they said this is not the truth and they freed me"

A few of my friends and I knew many of the old trade unionists and we had many discussions with them about reforming unions in Iran.

We tried to use our own experience. We studied fundamental union rights and tried to interpret those issues to our workers. We went from one bus to another, asking questions and trying to make sure the drivers had somewhere to rest. We put all our ideas together to see how we could make a difference to our co-workers. We thought about the effects of our previous generation, what they did and their experiences and how we could renew them for our own union.

We tried to publish a new magazine. We visited every coffee shop; we talked to every driver while they were driving around Tehran. This was six years ago.

Our situation was known in a wide area. At the end of the period of the previous President, Khatami, we decided it was time for us to organise ourselves, and in 2005 after Ahmadinejad came to power for the first time, we started to show our unhappiness about the situation.

One of our actions involved drivers keeping their lights on while driving passengers around the city. This was a protest at the failure of so-called “workers’ organisations” at the company, and about workplace problems such as low wages and long working hours; the use of outdated buses; drivers’ fatigue caused by heavy road congestion; staff redundancy and management’s corruption.

The same day that they first arrested me, the chief of security in Tehran tried to see how he could bring us to the negotiating table. At this time, we had these negotiations and management promised us they were implementing what we agreed, but they didn’t. And from August to December 2005 they kept arresting me.

Each time I went to court, when the judges saw my case, they said this is not the truth and they freed me, but this continued to happen until the December of that year (when Osanloo was arrested and imprisoned for eight months).

How have you managed to keep going, despite the fear that you must have felt many times?
It’s a necessity, and we decided it is better to die than to live like this.

What are conditions like for the bus workers in Tehran?

The minimum wage for bus workers in Tehran is close to US$100 and with all the subsidies we receive it comes to about US$150. The poverty line is US$400 per month. But even government statistics show that the minimum wage should be US$300 per month.

At the same time, working conditions are very difficult. The air pollution is very bad. Some bus services have been privatised, which means the workers have to ensure they compete with these buses. Another problem is that they are not doing just one job, they have many different jobs: they are the driver, the helper, the ticket collector. Yet more problems are that there are two sections on the bus: the women have to be in one section and the men in another. This is a very difficult working situation for us.
Meanwhile since the industrial action in January 2006, which led to mass arrests and dismissals, 43 workers have been terminated. Six of them are in the mediation process, and four workers have received a “return to work” letter.

Does the union have, and encourage, women members?

We had 200 women workers as part of our union and we fought to get them even US$40 per month for the day care of their children. But after the mass arrests their participation went down.

However our members’ wives are very active. They come to our membership meetings, they listen, and they have a right to give an opinion. And on 8 March we had a press release for International Women’s Day and a ceremony.

Is the union allowed to represent its 7,000 members in any normal ways?

Claiming that we represent 7,000 members is not correct, because we do not yet have a free general membership. We are spokespeople for the workers. We represent their problems and they are with us, but if we were in a free and normal situation I believe that 70 to 80 per cent of the whole workforce of 15,000 would want us to represent them.

For the first general membership meeting we had on the street, thousands of workers came and they even ran away from the police and hid in the alleyway, just so that they could come and join. They knew we had helped to increase their wages by US$50 per month, and had got the provision of work clothes for them. I sit here in front of you and the clothes that I am wearing come from the employers.

The most important thing for us to do was to make the temporary workers permanent, and now at least they have a two-year contract.

Do you believe the bus workers of Tehran will eventually get their free and independent union?

Certainly, I believe that.

But what needs to happen, both inside and outside of Iran, for this to become a reality?

I think continued international support for our efforts is one of the most crucial things for us. People have to know that our government representatives are members of the United Nations body and the International Labour Organization (ILO). This is the most important thing for us. Everywhere we go we talk about ILO conventions 87 (concerning freedom of association) and 98 (concerning the right to organise and to bargain collectively).

But we pay the price for this. In Iran, the people are very suspicious of the situation, because they have heard so many lies. But we are trying to gain their trust. I believe that we have already made progress in achieving this, and we hope we can continue in this direction.

What are the political influences in the country?

The situation we are in is very mixed. The majority of people who are in power come from a military background and they are very conservative, but there are different tendencies. Inside the country, we are fighting for our rights. Parliamentary elections will be taking place in the next few months.

The different tendencies have different interests and a different media, and a few of those media are supportive of our work. For example there are particular newspapers that try to emphasise our needs, and each one represents one part of the tendency of the Iranian government. We hope that all of this together will help to lead us to an independent and free organisation.

There are a variety of different movements in Iran right now. We have a student movement, a women’s movement, a workers’ movement, they are training and educating themselves. They try to work together, directly or indirectly, for solidarity.

Interview by Kay Parris