Thousands of workers in Iran’s vast energy industry have gone on strike over the past week to demand better wages and conditions at oil installations, Iranian media reported on Wednesday.
The protests show the mounting economic pressures on Tehran as it struggles for relief from crippling sanctions.
Footage on social media shows building workers at 60 oil and petrochemical installations, mainly in the country’s south, walking off their jobs in protest.
Cars honk and crowds of workers cheer as they stream on to the dusty roads, with the refinery’s hulking white storage tanks receding behind them.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowed on Wednesday to “solve” oil workers’ grievances and sought to ease fears over any economic consequences.
Mr Rouhani said the protests were mainly limited to private construction workers on temporary contracts at the plants and would not hurt Iran’s oil production.
The protests have not yet reached the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company, where about 200,000 workers receive wages three times as high and better protection under Iran’s labour law.
“We do not have and we will not have any problem in the production, transfer, distribution and export of oil,” Mr Rouhani told his weekly Cabinet meeting.
“I promise the workers of the oil industry that their problems will be solved.”
The striking workers at remote facilities in the southern desert reaches of the country, where summer temperatures exceed 50°C, are demanding wages on par with those in the state oil company.
They also want 10 days off a month to visit their families in faraway cities. The contractors receive about $200 a month, one day off a week and 2.5 holidays a month.
Iran’s oil sector, the lifeblood of its economy, has been devastated by American sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Three years ago, president Donald Trump pulled America from Tehran’s landmark 2015 nuclear accord with world powers and reimposed sanctions on Iran that have cut its petrochemical exports and badly damaged its economy.
Diplomats from parties to the deal have been struggling to resurrect it in Vienna.
With the coronavirus pandemic worsening Iran’s economic woes, inflation has grown more than 40 per cent, taking a heavy toll on labourers.
Workers have staged scattered, low-level strikes in various cities and industries over salary, retirement and pension issues in recent months.
There have been no reports of tough action against the strikers by security troops but human rights groups have raised the alarm because of the country’s dark history of crackdowns on popular unrest.
Iran’s news media, strictly controlled by authorities, has paid little attention to the oil workers’ strikes, which are politically sensitive in Iran.
In 1978 mass strikes over wages and working conditions in the oil industry cut production and grew into demands for the overthrow of the pro-western monarchy, before the Islamic Revolution months later.
“The issues facing the oil industry’s workers are the same as those facing all workers in Iran. The authorities should begin addressing their urgent needs,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights in Iran, based in New York.
Mr Ghaemi said there could be “violence against the strikers if these work stoppages continue and grow".
But in the meantime, Iranian officials say they are trying to address workers’ demands.
Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said he received backing from legislators in an emergency parliamentary committee this week to remove wage restraints from building contracts in the oil industry.
Former hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was barred from running again in Iran’s presidential election this month, sent a letter in support of those on strike.
After his disqualification, Mr Ahmadinejad has sought to gain support by posing as an anti-establishment figure.
Iran’s hard-line judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, won the election, which was widely considered to be tipped in his favour.
“I warn all related authorities and officials,” said Mr Ahmadinejad, whose re-election in a disputed 2009 presidential vote led to security forces suppressing Iran’s Green Movement protests.
“Disregarding the protests of those who have found all usual forms to express their demands blocked will not carry good consequences.”