Oil as a source of social change


Touraj Atabaki – “NWO Humanities
Workingmen at the Abadan Oil Refinery (1940s) (Image: British Petroleum (BP))
Workingmen at the Abadan Oil Refinery (1940s) (Image: British Petroleum (BP))

The workers in the Iranian oil industry organised themselves faster and on a much larger scale than anywhere else in the Middle East.

‘There are other studies of the Iranian oil industry, but these have often been commissioned by oil companies such as BP or Shell. Never before has light been shed on how the arrival of the oil industry has changed Iranian society and the lives of workers in this industry,’ says Atabaki about his motivation for the research project funded by NWO Humanities (NWO GW).

Daily life

The oil industry in Iran belonged to the most important oil industries in the world from when oil was first found there in 1908. Particularly during the First and Second World Wars, Iranian oil played a major role in international politics. ‘The political and economic history have already been extensively documented. Together with a postdoc and three PhD candidates I am specifically looking at the social history of labour in a wider context. We focus on daily life with topics such as working conditions, housing, leisure time, education and migration.’

Workingmen at the Abadan Oil Refinery (1930s) (Image: British Petroleum (BP))
Workingmen at the Abadan Oil Refinery (1930s) (Image: British Petroleum (BP))

Migration

These researchers are studying how the arrival of oilfields and oil refineries influenced both the internal as well as the external migration. At first many Indian skilled workers from Burma moved to Iran. ‘Oil had been found in Burma before it was found in Iran. These experienced Burmese labourers helped to set up the oil refineries in Iran. There were also engineers from Great Britain and other European countries, but nowhere near as many as the large number of low-educated Indian migrant workers from India who were attracted by the new job opportunities.’

Laying pipe to transfer oil from Oilfield Masjid Suleiman to Refinery Abadan (1909) (Image: British Petroleum (BP))
Laying pipe to transfer oil from Oilfield Masjid Suleiman to Refinery Abadan (1909) (Image: British Petroleum (BP))

Mini-colonies

Iranian cities consisting of completely different neighbourhoods formed around the refineries. ‘There was not only a difference between the working class neighbourhoods and the areas where managers lived, but there was also a clear segregation between various ethnic groups. Take the British, for example, they had their own neighbourhoods in these cities, with their own local government and even their own police force. Rather like a small British colony within the Iranian city.’

Organised Labour

Another important development was the rise of labour activism, explains Atabaki. ‘The workers in the Iranian oil industry organised themselves faster and at a much larger scale than anywhere else in the Middle East. Just after World War II there were more than half a million trade union members in Iran.’ One of the largest strikes took place in the 1946. ‘But the history of the first strike goes to the Indian migrant workers in 1920. They saw how the management was bathing in luxury, while the workers lived in great poverty. The Indians protested against this and demanded better wages, better housing and more leisure activities.’ The 1920 strike was followed by other strikes in 1922 and 1929; the latter was registered as the largest strike by then bringing together both the Indian and Iranian workers.

Workingwomen at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company Administration Office (1940s) (Image: British Petroleum (BP))
Workingwomen at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company Administration Office (1940s) (Image: British Petroleum (BP))

Extensive research

The researchers studied all kinds of sources for information. ‘We went way off the beaten track. We even looked at archives from the otherwise very closed Burma.’ Since Touraj Atabaki left Iran 33 years ago, he can no longer enter Iran himself to conduct research. But he has found a solution for this. ‘I have a very large network in Iran. By stetting questioners, my assistants in Iran have helped me to interview the workers who are still alive as well as scanning and sending documents. I also spoke to many people on the telephone or using Skype.’ His three PhD candidates and the postdoc involved in this research project were able to do fieldwork in Iran.

Morning physical exercise for young workers (1940s) (Image: British Petroleum (BP))
Morning physical exercise for young workers (1940s) (Image: British Petroleum (BP))

Reference work

Considering the wealth of information that has been gathered, Atabaki aims to make the data as widely available as possible. For example in the 3-volume monograph he is working on the Hundred Years Social History of labour in the Iranian Oil Industry. The first volume covering the period 1908-1951 will be published in 2016. The retired professor who is now an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the International Institute of Social History is currently working on the second volume, which covers the period from nationalising the oil industry (1951) until the outbreak of the war between Iran and Iraq in 1982. A war, which had a devastating effect on Iran’s oil production. The last volume will be about the period after that until the year 2008.

Furthermore, the research results have also found their way into number of articles by Touraj Atabaki and his PhD students in peer review academic journals and edited volumes. Also a co-edited volume (Touraj Atabaki, Elisabetta Bini and Kaveh Ehsani will become available shortly: Working for oil; a comparative social history of labour in petroleum. This publication examines the social history of the oil industry from Brazil to Nigeria and from Iran to Siberia.

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