By Mahmoud Hakamian
The Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Mill was once a source of national pride, but since it was privatized in 2015, it has been struggling financially. Workers at the mill in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, have continued their protests for the fifth consecutive day. The workers say that not only have they not been paid since August, but they also want answers regarding the future of the industrial complex.
Workers’ strikes and demonstrations occur regularly at the mill. Workers claim they are not paid for months at a time. As well, they say that their wages and benefits have been cut since privatization.
On November 8th, state-run Iran Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported that the names of many of the complex’s shareholders, and members of its board of directors, are on an official list of those who have violated currency exchange regulations. In fact, the company’s largest shareholder and director general is believed to have either fled Iran or been detained by the authorities for violating the new regulations on foreign exchange transactions.
A former mill employee Ali Nejati said, “Some say the director general has fled the country to avoid being arrested, while others say he has been arrested and held in custody for violating the new law on forex transactions.”
The judiciary has refrained commenting on the whereabouts of the director general.
“Not only have the workers not received their salaries for months and no New Year’s bonus, they have also been subjected to legal prosecution instead of their employer being held responsible,” their union, who is officially unrecognized at this time, wrote in a recent statement.
The Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Mill was built on a 2-hectare area nearly half a century ago during the reign of last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It is the only factory of its kind in Iran. The mill was lucrative before it was sold to the private sector in 2015. It was sold to the private sector for a down payment of roughly two million dollars, and it is unclear if any further payments have been made. But what is clear is that the privatized company accrued large debts of over $90 million in 2017. These debts were mostly to public utilities and tax authorities.
The private owners of the complex withheld salaries, wages, and pensions in an attempt to resolve the problem. This triggered strikes, and made sugar production increasingly unreliable. The Iranian government began importing sugar for the local markets. The private owners blame the government for forcing it into deeper crisis by not buying the mill’s products.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said he believes the unrest among the workers is a “foreign plot” to overthrow the regime. When he addressed the Congress of 14,000 Martyred Laborers onFebruary 5th, Khamenei said, “One of the major activities of our enemies has been to create a recession and obstacles in our factories and among our labor groups — particularly the big ones — so they can provoke the workers,” in one of his shortest speeches ever.