On Sept. 12, Akbar Showkat, head of Iran’s Council of Construction Workers, told reporters that 15,000 workers have been hurt on the job, which means that Iran holds the record per capita for employment-related mishaps. Over half of annual job-related injuries, he added, are in the construction sector.
Iranian workers have been suffering from poor job safety for decades and also face problems of no insurance, under-insurance and late payments for compensation. According to the Iranian government, 2000 people have died on the job over the past year, of whom 1200 worked in construction.
Many workers don’t wear safety gear while working on building sites. Either their employer fails to provide it or the workers fail to use it and don’t take the risks seriously. Many climb scaffolds without adequate harnesses or refuse to wear hard hats.
Iranian officials blame at least half of workers’ injuries on negligence. While more than half of all work-related fatalities happen in the construction sector, workers in the mining sector hold the second place in this regard.
Given these statistics, it is obviously necessary to raise awareness among Iranian workers about the tragic potential consequences of neglecting safety measures. At the same time, employers and supervisors must be held accountable if they do not provide the necessary gear and enforce the rules.
An equally important problem is the lack of sufficient health insurance provided by employers. Although the government passed a law to require such insurance several years ago and noncompliance is supposed to be punishable, most private sector employers fail to provide their workers with adequate insurance and major loopholes exist in the current law.
Another factor in the high rate of injuries is that many workers hold more than one job. Some even work three jobs a day – for a total of 15 hours – and are simply too exhausted to focus on what they are doing, be it in factories or on construction sites.
According to Showkat, 18 government offices are collaborating in an effort to reduce the number of on-the-job injuries, with the goal of reducing them to zero over the next decade.
One reason Iranian workers have not pressed harder in the past for improvement is because they fear losing their jobs. There are approximately 1.4 million active construction workers in Iran but they are at risk of being replaced by cheaper labor, especially from Afghanistan and including illegal immigrants. The unemployment rate in Iran remains stubbornly high. The government says that the latest unemployment rate in Iran is 10%, but many unofficial statistics– including those given by an Iranian Majles member — say the real rate is over 30%.
An extensive research study done last year by Iran’s Ministries of Interior and Health demonstrates the deterioration of workers’ health — both physical and mental — as well as family stability, perceived as a result of work-related stress.
Hassan Hefdahtan, a deputy minister of Labor, says that workplace accidents resulting in injuries add an extra expense of about 7% to annual production costs and depress GDP. While pointing out the necessity of reducing work-related incidents, he noted that there has been a reduction since President Hassan Rouhani took office and that the daily average number of workers dying on the job has fallen to 4.5 from 5.5 under the previous government.
Making meaningful efforts to close loopholes that allow business owners and employers to get away with providing workers with little or no insurance, raising wages to improve the living standards of the Iranian working class –70% of whom currently live below the poverty line –and enforcing safety measures and holding both employees and supervisors accountable in this regard, will all contribute to a better life for the workers of Iran.
Mehrnaz Samimi is a journalist and simultaneous interpreter based in Washington, DC. On Twitter: @MehrnazSamimi