Afghan Workers and Unemployment in Iran

Translator’s Note:

Yashar Darolshafa, a young activist-thinker with a Master’s degree in sociology,  recently began serving a 5 and one half year prison term at the notorious Evin prison.  Like many other young activists, he was convicted of “promoting propaganda against the government.”  Below are excerpts from one of his many articles.   This article  was originally published  on December 2009 by the website, Alborz inside Iran.  Recently, it was  reprinted by Zamin, an Iranian exile journal, in a special issue devoted to challenging racism and xenophobia.  To sign a petition to demand Yashar Darolshafa’s release,  please go to

Title:  The “Meaning of Being Afghan”  or “Why I Became Unemployed?”

Author:  Yashar Darolshafa

Source:  Zamin,  Vol. 2,  #2 (Summer 1391)*

Date of original publication:  December 2009

Translated by Frieda Afary


“While Mohammad Hassan Salehi Maram,  the chief of the department in charge of alien employment,  reports that there are 3 million Afghans in Iran who are mostly undocumented and employed,  a field report from the Fars New Agency indicates that Iranian workers stand around  at various squares around Tehran and count minutes until 12:30 in the afternoon  in search of employment.”

The heart of any Iranian  is pained by reading this news!  Shame on us.  Our dear fellow countrymen who are standing around the streets have to come home empty-handed at night while undocumented Afghan immigrants are walking freely on the streets of this country and are not preoccupied with hunger and unemployment?!

But we were probably delighted to learn that last year the Ministry of Interior implemented a plan in coordination with the Department of Labor and Social Services which obliged all Afghans over the age of 18 to pay 70,0000Tumans($75 at the time)  to receive a work permit which was only valid for five months.  This fee was imposed in addition to other costs such as taxes, immigration permit fees, school fees for their elementary  and high school aged children, and  fees for receiving state subsidies.

According to the above plan,  Afghan workers are only permitted to seek employment  in dangerous fields such as brick building,  quarries, mining, animal husbandry and construction….

In March  2008, while evaluating the 2009 budget, a committee of  the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran [national legislative body—tr. ] passed a proposal by which all foreign residents were obliged to pay 500,000 Tumans ($550 at the time)  to receive a one-year work permit.  This amount is in addition to all the other costs which they are obliged to pay.   Everything has been calculated.  The only ambiguity is the following:  “How Afghan immigrants would be able to pay the required fee in one year,  considering that they engage in such difficult and low paying jobs?”

Based on the above description, we can examine the relationship between the presence of Afghan refugees and the problem of unemployment from other angels.  In order to examine this issue, first, we need to look at the history of the presence of Afghans in Iran’s labor market.

The Role of Afghan Workers in the Structure of Iran’s Economy:

Afghan workers have been present in Iran’s labor market since the early 1970s.  Thousands entered Iran around the time of the economic boom.  Their cheap labor and the exciting dream of the accumulation of capital and super profits, made Iranian capitalists– with the Pahlavi dynasty at their helm–compete to remove administrative barriers which prevented the entrance of Afghans into Iran.

During those years, like today,  Afghan workers were doing the most difficult jobs with the lowest pay, and lacked any amenities, insurance or health benefits. . . .

The long years of the civil war in Afghanistan,  unemployment,  poverty, squalor,  and specifically the absence of security in the hell created  by  the Mujahedeen gangs and then the Taliban,  and even under the legal and democratic rule of Hamid Karzai,  made millions of Afghans migrate to neighboring countries including Iran. . .

The slave-like working conditions and subsistence level of Afghan workers in the new Iran became so acceptable that the government  issued a new decree in 1984.  It was  entitled “The Method of Implementing the  Temporary Employment Plan for Afghan Muslim Refugees.”  This decree only permitted these workers to work in specific areas such as  brick baking,  construction,  loading and unloading cargo,  tanneries,  agriculture,  mining,   glassmaking, plastic making, road construction, canal building…i.e. the most difficult jobs.

For Years,  Afghan workers not only helped to create an economic boom for Iranian capitalists by increasing their wealth,  but also became a weapon for further lowering the standard of life and working conditions of native Iranian workers.   Deprived Afghan workers who were impoverished and in a dire state,  were forced to accept difficult and backbreaking jobs with the cheapest wages.    This led not only to a reduction in the wages and the subsistence level of Iranian workers,  but also to division and discord among workers. . .

In Capital,  Marx writes that [under the capitalist mode of value production—tr.] “The real characteristics of a thing do not arise from the thing but only from the external relationship of that thing with other things.”** This is the story of Afghan workers in the Iranian economy as well.  They are considered neither human beings,  nor workers nor simple manual laborers  but are made to take on the adjective,  economic “excrescence” in order to justify and cover over the government’s actions in particular and the inefficiency of the ruling economic structure in Iran  in general.  As an economic “excrescence,” they stay lodged in the body of the Iranian economy as a permanent cleavage.  This is a cleavage to which the rulers return again and again in order to renew their policies of  privatization — read monopolization—and  rule by capital, which lay off masses of workers. . . .

The Roots of Unemployment and the Reserve Army of the Unemployed:

Despite the above commentary, critics can argue the following:  “Given the dysfunctional economic situation and the impossibility of finding permanent jobs with sufficient wages,  Iranian workers too will be forced to agree to work under any circumstances.  Hence,  the Afghan workers’ taking away of  those very slave-like jobs,  limits the opportunities of Iranian workers.”

In response to the above proposition,  we can explicate the theory of the reserve army of the unemployed  with qualifications.  Let’s ask the following question:  “What factor limits wages in order to allow for surplus value and the accumulation of capital to continue to be the distinctive and fundamental feature of capitalist production?”  Undoubtedly, it is those outside the employment circle who are continuously looking for work and constitute a group called the “relative surplus population.” . . .

Cheap Workers and Expensive Housing:

Ever since the plan to expel undocumented Afghan workers was implemented,  many developers and contractors in the housing sector have become concerned about the consequences of this plan.    Last January,  when it was announced that 8000 Afghan workers had been expelled in one month and replaced with Iranian workers,  some experts in the housing industry  predicted an increase in cost prices in this sector.  That is because they believed that Iranian workers would never be willing to work at the wage rate of Afghan workers,  and that raising wages would automatically lead to higher costs. . . . Consider also that Iranian workers are half as productive as Afghan workers.  Given these circumstances,  it can be said that Iranian workers cost four times as much as Afghan workers. . .

How can we call Afghan workers an “excrescence” when their absence in the Iranian economy leads to a housing crisis?   As demonstrated, the problem [of unemployment] arises elsewhere, i.e. from the fact that employers and domestic capitalists depend on a cheap labor force, and in one word, exploitation to the extent possible. . .

December 2009

*There is no website available for the Zamin Quarterly.  Below is the link to their facebook page:

** This is not an exact quotation.  See Marx, Karl.  Capital, Volume 1.  Vintage Books, 1977, p. 149.

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