"We are workers. We are not political". This was a slogan that appeared on a series of banners raised by Andimeshk Municipality workers in southern Iran during their protests over unpaid wages earlier this year.
At a first glance, the slogan seems to be a confirmation of some of the recent analysis and commentary on the protests that shook Iran in the last two weeks. They were described as a "socioeconomic uprising" or an "economic revolt" devoid of political roots, despite the fact that many slogans did directly target the political establishment.
The Iranian authorities have capitalised on such a distinction in order to differentiate between those who in their view have "legitimate" economic frustrations and those who merely create "political unrest".
Undeniably, the economy is at the heart of grievances that have brought the people's dissatisfactions with the status quo to a boiling point. Economic mismanagement and entrenched corruption have given rise to a high rate of unemployment, inflation and widening socioeconomic inequalities. The government's austerity measures have not only affected the working class, but they have also increasingly impacted the lower sections of the urban middle class.
This has been compounded by the effect of economic and financial sanctions that are believed to have contributed to deteriorating living standards. In 2013, Human Rights Watch reported that workers rights activists had told the organisation how sanctions had "worsened the plight of workers" by negatively affecting manufacturing units. Moreover, the administrations' expectations of an inflow of foreign investments in the aftermath of the nuclear deal have thus far remained unfulfilled.
False dichotomy between socioeconomic and political demands
Despite the clear role of economic factors in recent protests, deeper scrutiny points to the inadequacy of creating a sharp dichotomy between "socioeconomic" and "political" demands.
The suggestion that working class protests are devoid of political demands derives in part from a class-biased reading of social movements. The claim tends to allocate a series of demands based on the social and economic status of those involved, whereby the working class (unlike the middle class) is presumed not to have political aspirations.
Moreover, such a dichotomy could falsely imply that addressing economic grievances is possible without major political concessions and fundamental structural changes. In reality, political demands are intrinsically woven into socioeconomic grievances in the case of Iran.
A revealing example of this interconnection is the budget controversy that emerged in the weeks preceding the protests. President Hassan Rouhani's budget bill, introduced to the parliament in December 2017, targeted the cash transfer programme to lower income families, cutting the number of recipients by 30 million. At the same time, it disclosed the names of conservative religious and cultural institutions that receive large budgetary allocations with little or no oversight and accountability.
Many of these institutions are aimed at the propagation and preservation of specific and state-sponsored visions of governance in support of the current political system (in particular velayat-e faqih or the principle of the guardianship of the Islamic Jurist).
The administration's inability – if in fact it has the political will – to deprioritise funds allocated to these institutions is a testament to the very design of the country's political structure that effectively limits the government' authority when it comes to when and where to spend public funds.
Last year, a presidential deputy complained that the administration's hands "are tied". Affirmation of such constraints of course does not absolve the government's failings and violations of people's rights, but points to the very structure of the political system in Iran.
It is therefore not surprising that a system that places major constraints on one of its main elected bodies severely limits and controls channels for societal political expression and participation. This is particularly evident when it comes to trade unions.
Trade unions under attack
Trade unions and an independent labour movement are among the most effective channels for collective bargaining and influencing economic decisions. In Iran, however, independent trade unions have been under consorted attacks since the 1979 Revolution. This is reflected in Iran's classification under Category 5 ("no guarantee of rights") of the International Trade Union Confederation.
Under Iran's Labour Code, mobilisation and representation of workers is only permissible through Islamic Labour Councils or Trade Associations – neither of which is independent.
Under the law, the Islamic Labour Councils – which have been disproportionately favoured by the state – are supposed "to propagate and disseminate Islamic culture and to defend the achievements of the Islamic revolution". They are thus not legally predicted as a mechanism to protect workers' rights. Instead, they are fundamentally designed to preserve the political establishment.
On the other hand, Trade Associations not only require state approval, but are also prone to serious interference in their functioning from the state. Therefore, the current legal framework provides Iran's workers with very little possibility of improving their working conditions and influencing policymaking through officially recognised channels.
In the face of state repression over the past decades, workers have bravely mobilised to form independent trade unions such as the Free Union of Workers of Iran, the Iran Teachers Trade Association (ITTA), and the Syndicate of the Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company.
Although at least 17 (out of 31) branches of the ITTA are officially registered, its ability to organisationally and politically defend teachers' rights has remained limited with many of its leading members imprisoned. Neither of the other two unions has received official permission to operate.
Moreover, independent trade unionists and workers who engage in activism to claim their rights regularly and systematically face persecution, including through intimidation, arrest, and imprisonment. In May 2016, seventeen mineworkers from the Agh Dareh gold mine in West Azerbaijan province were subjected to flogging and a cash fine. Their verdict had come after their employer filed a complaint in reprisal for their collective action in protest against the firing of 350 workers.
In addition to prison terms, some courts have subjected trade unionists to bans such as "membership in political and social parties, groups or collectives" and "engagement in online space, media and press" in an apparent bid to silence them. This is a clear example of how infringements on political rights are linked to the realization of economic demands.
Iran in need of major legal reforms
In the aftermath of the recent protests, a number of officials from various factions acknowledged the legitimacy of people's economic grievances and urged the disgruntled population to pursue their protests via "legal channels".
These "legal channels", however, remain extremely limited given the ban on independent trade unions as well as undue restrictions that are imposed, in law and practice, on freedoms of expression, association and assembly.
Indeed, a concrete measure that could grant these official statements a mark of sincerity would be to revise and amend the country's laws, including the Labour Code with a view to legalise independent trade unions, protect workers' rights activists against reprisals, and guarantee civil and political rights.
In the absence of such major legal reforms, official acknowledgments of frustrations and calls to pursue grievances through "legal channels" amount to empty rhetoric. The state cannot on the one hand take away the primary instruments of claiming social and economic rights (such as freedom of speech, association and peaceful assembly), while at same time offer proclamations of sympathy for economic grievances.
The Andimeshk Municipality workers were perhaps well aware of the persecution they would face should the authorities perceive their collective action as subversive and "political". Thus, their proclamation "we are not political" must not be read as confirmation of the false dichotomy of economic versus political. In all likelihood, it is an attempt to alleviate the risk of persecution that would further burden their already precarious lives.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.