Labor Troubles in an Expanding Boomtown



 Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
 From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” 


Labor recruitment was a major challenge facing APOC, especially in the first two decades of its operation in Iran. The Company had to cast a wide net geographically to attract all sorts of workers and employees willing and qualified for the diverse and increasingly complex tasks across its expanding operations, especially in Abadan. According to George Thomson, one of the earliest oil experts who had settled in Abadan around 1911, the initial artisan laborers were hired from Burma’s Rangoon Refinery. Soon a growing nucleus of skilled workers began to be recruited from India. Unskilled workers in Abadan were hired from the surrounding local “Arab and Persian villages”. “Once word of employment and good wages spread they came from all over. Tribesmen from areas as far distant as Lurestan, the Bakhtiyari Country, Kurdistan found their way to Abadan. These men were more robust than locals and were welcomed”[39]. In this early period the skilled workers were mostly British or Indians; but they also included drillers, machinists, and mechanics from Poland, Canada, the US, and elsewhere in Europe, as well as across the border from Mesopotamia.
During the war Abadan had grown rapidly to supply the Admiralty with fuel, as well as the enormous military machine assembled in Mesopotamia and the Middle East (see table 1). After coming online, the refinery had supplied on average two thirds of Royal Navy’s fuel, in addition to nearly 200 thousand tons of refinery products to the other British forces in Mesopotamia[40]. Wartime military demand were enormous: At its maximum strength the British war machine had assembled nearly 450 thousand troops in Mesopotamia alone[41], mostly recruited from India. This increasingly mechanized war machine had created an insatiable demand for the Abadan refinery output, as there were some 6400 motorized transport vehicles (running on internal combustion engines) and 45 airplanes deployed there. However, in addition to petroleum products, the British war machine was also absorbing most the manpower throughout the region, by employing nearly 900 thousand people during wartime[42].
To the extent that a local and regional labor market had come into existence it was being nearly monopolized by the military apparatus, leaving little for the Oil Company and other commercial operations in the region[43]. Wartime needs were such that the military did not shirk away from gang pressing workers into service, or deploying prisoners and indentured laborers from India[44]. The military also paid higher wages and when necessary prohibited APOC or other private firms from pilfering those in its employ, especially in neighboring Basra[45]. As a result APOC faced a severe and unequal competition for recruiting its much-needed manpower. The Company dispatches during the last two years of the war emphasize the range of its frantic activities, and the pressing need for qualified personnel to deal with them. These tasks were in response to the need for the expansion of physical infrastructure that included storage, port facilities, fields electrification, technical staff to deal with extraordinary “line losses” (the loss of oil in pipelines as it was dispatched from the fields to Abadan through pipelines), the establishment and maintenance of telephone and telegraph systems, tank farms, road constructions, fire controls at wells and the refinery, housing constructions at Fields and in Abadan, and so on[46]. Furthermore, the oil business was booming everywhere during wartime, leading to the recruitment office in Mohammareh complaining to London in 1917 that “With Pennsylvania crude at a phenomenal $3.25 and great activity everywhere it is going to be hard to get good drillers”[47]. However, the devastating impact of the war in Iran had created a negative image that was not easy to overcome. Forbes-Leith, and officer serving with the wartime British expeditionary forces in western Iran recalled his harrowing experience:
“The invasion had very seriously depleted [the western] part of the country of its stock of grains, and many of the farmers had been drained by the armies to such an extent that they had been obliged to eat their seed corn in order to avoid starvation. In the year 1917 they had nothing left to sow. To add to their misery in the winter of 1916-1917 there was an exceptionally light snowfall and the resultant spring drought. This caused the breakdown of their irrigation system and in consequence most of the crops in the line of march [of invading troops] failed…Famine conditions naturally bring diseases in their wake, and typhus, cholera, smallpox, and the influenza epidemic ravaged our force in spite of what I feel was the almost perfect technique of our efficient army medical service. I lost my friends and my men from all kinds of foul diseases, and under such conditions it is little wonder that many of my brother officers regarded Persia as a veritable hell on earth”[48].
The Company needed not only drillers and oil experts, but also all manners of specialists. With war coming to an end the Company anticipated decommissioned military personnel in the neighboring Mesopotamia to become available for recruitment, but it was repeatedly frustrated in these attempts[49]. The Company sought electrical communication specialists to take over managing their “first class facilities with no one to maintain [and operate] them”. The General Manager in Mohammareh repeatedly complained about the shortage of expert labor, and pleaded for more energetic attempts to get reliable men from the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force, and for “Competent European military personnel to superintend telephone and telegraph operations with efficiency in teaching and handling signals ”, but with limited success[50]. The reasons for these difficulties were primarily the uncompetitive and relatively lower wages and salaries the Company offered, the inadequate recruiting networks, the hellish working conditions, and the equally poor and hazardous living situation in Khuzestan and across the Company areas at the time. We shall discuss these issues in order to get an insight into life and work in Abadan at this juncture.
APOC did not offer adequate compensation to be an attractive work option for skilled recruits, even among decommissioned and now unemployed men who had served in the difficult conflict in Mesopotamia. This poor reputation had been true during wartime as well. In 1916 the APOC General Manager complained to Arnold Wilson, then stationed in Basra, “We suffer from labor leaving us from Abadan for higher pay at Basra. Our clerks can draw abnormal pay at Basra”. He cited three cases of Iranian clerks who had simply moved to Basra for pay increases of up to 50 percent[51]. Indian skilled workers and personnel also sought the more favorable terms across the border in Mesopotamia[52]. It seemed the Iranian employees had set up informal networks for finding better pay elsewhere, when they could. There was the case of a certain Mirza Kazem,
“Who had worked well and was discharged honorably”, but was now “Enticing labor away to Basra. He has high influence with workmen at Mohammerah, and is in position to promise temptingly high wages for [British] government employment [in Iraq], denuding us of our local staff. As it is we have for months felt the pinch consequent upon desertions to Basra”[53]. However, the problem was not limited to the all too rare and valuable Iranian clerks and staff, but also involved unskilled Arab “coolies” as well as the skilled and better trained Indians. There was delight when a highly skilled technician was found in India, and seemed willing to commit to work for APOC: “We are very pleased that the electrical expert has sailed, and also that you have instructed him to engage whatever experienced native labour he requires before leaving India. This is a wise course, as the labor we receive through various agencies is very indifferent. Really good men are receiving high wages in India, and the rates we offer are no inducement…we are working with a minimum staff and with not a man to spare”[54].
The Company had engaged a number of labor recruitment firms in India, but there were complaints regarding their reliability to continue supplying the skilled staff needed[55]. There were dire needs for surveyors and telegraph operators, but it was felt that “Indians get either ill or leave”. The Company began technical training classes in Ahvaz from 1916, hoping to prepare pupils at the English school it had helped establish there, “but despite inducements when standard proficiency is reached our efforts did not meet success”. Apparently the trained pupils would just pack up and leave for Mesopotamia and even as far away as West Africa, “which are crisscrossed with telegraph lines and there is great need for Indian telegraphists”[56]. It seemed “skilled Indians draw high wages and return to India after one year”. There were also suspicions about their possible subversive attitude at a time when anti colonial nationalism was on the rise: “The Indians are highly independent minded”; and they were seen as disloyal and opportunistic: “A good many of our men are anxious to get away from Abadan to work in Basra for higher wages. Our wages to skilled Indians are good…and we are eager to keep [them]”. By the war’s end the labor shortage had reached critical dimensions, and the manager there wrote Wilson, “Our staff at Abadan is barely sufficient to keep the refinery running. We are seriously feeling the shortage of chemists”.[57]. As for unskilled Arab employees, they also bolted for greener pastures in Basra or elsewhere, at a time when borders were porous and the British military exercised sovereignty across the region. The manager at Abadan and Mohammerah complained to Arnold Wilson, the Deputy British Commissioner in Basra, “We have all along been having the greatest difficulty retaining coolies at Abadan… Matters have worsened recently and we are 1,000 coolies under strength. We have done all we can with the Sheikh [Khaz’al], Haji Raiis, Sheikh Mousa. All say they can’t do anything on the account of urgent demand and high wages being paid in Basra. Last payday some 200 men cleared out [at Mohammareh]. This morning Abadan have rung up to say a similar number went yesterday. Steamer loading and discharging is suffering, and the tin shed output is reduced from 4 to 2 thousand tins per day, which is only half of various government departments’ demand for kerosene and petrol…We cannot stop Mohammerah Arabs leaving for Basra, unless coercion is applied to make them work at Abadan… [He then asked Wilson whether it was possible to arrange (press gang) a regular labor corps under government control, to supply us up to 800 collies from Basra], “but even 300 would do”[58].

Basra tried to cooperate by imposing some limits on labor movement, and defended itself by claiming wages in Basra were not higher than Abadan[59]. It was becoming clear that other factors were at work. By summer 1917 it had become evident that famine was as much a cause of labor shortage as wages, and Company correspondents began to admit that destitution and hunger were equally behind labor flight as wage opportunism[60]. The constant warfare, chronic insecurity, drought, and vast military acquisitions of food crops, labor power, and draft animals were wreaking havoc on the population (see chapters 2 and 3). Wilson received an urgent request for famine relief in northern Khuzestan, and had to scramble some emergency supplies of flour, grain, and straw (as fodder) there to avoid a disaster.[61] To the extent that people had to resort to selling their labor for wages they were not doing so voluntarily to join the forward march to modernization! Rather, the restless movement between Basra, Abadan, Kuwait, and elsewhere seemed to have been a desperate attempt to survive the social disintegration that warfare, political insecurity, and oil capitalism had imposed on the local population. It must be added that uncompetitive wages were a detriment not only to APOC, but also to the other major British firm in Iran at the time, the all-powerful Imperial Bank, which held a monopoly of banking and minting currency in Iran until 1928. Like APOC the Imperial Bank suffered from a high staff turnover and a general inability to retain its employees[62]. There were many similarities between the corporate cultures of both firms, some of which had to do with working and living conditions in Iran at the time, but also with the colonial Victorian attitudes that pervaded both organizations, as well as the type of professionals these firms preferred to recruit, mostly young men from middling public schools. “The first university graduates joined the Bank after WWI”; but neither the old staff nor the new recruits felt compatibility as the university-trained employees felt frustrated by the mediocrity of the senior staff above them. Geoffrey Jones provides a description of the recruitment process at the Imperial Bank, and how the personnel manager described the ideal types they sought to employ:
“By 1930s the majority of the staff were school leavers from minor public schools, without prior work experience…The public school man was held to possess character to survive in the East, and the confidence to represent the Bank, and to assume authority over the local staff. The majority of the staff were recruited therefore [based on this type of recommendation given for] a 17 year old boy at Cheltenham College: “Keen on cricket, tennis, rugger. Nearly 6’ in height, healthy, cheerful, fairly good looking, pleasant manners, easily led, character undeveloped. Is anxious to go abroad, especially if riding would be possible” ” [63].

While work for APOC required more technical qualifications, the social background of its British staff were similar to those of the Bank (see chapters 1 and 3). Like APOC, the staff at the Imperial Bank complained about low salaries, poor social lives, and dire living conditions; significant problems that affected employee loyalty among these expatriates. Between 1909 and 1926 the Imperial bank had opened branches across Iran, including Khuzestan’s oil towns Abadan, Mohammareh, Ahvaz, and Masjed Soleyman; in order to benefit from APOC business[64]. The Bank faced serious personnel problems, with health issues and high mortality rates among its employees being a cause for concern. These were due to epidemics and disease, but also from depression, alcoholism, and psychological crises. Europeans, whether bankers or oilmen, found themselves highly isolated in these stark, alien, and isolated areas. They had no social life to which they had been accustomed, and given their public school education and their upbringing in institutionalized colonial racism, they systematically avoided meaningful social contact with the indigenous population on principle. This abhorrence of the racial contamination caused by any intermixing went so far as to make the Bank dismiss one of its employees, E.B. Soane, for the audacity of marrying an Iranian woman[65]. Later on Soane became British Consul in Dezful, as his stint was highly effective, and he was instrumental in mediating local disputes, especially over water rights, making him not only an influential and successful administrator during a trying period, but also highly popular among the local population[66].
Alcoholism was rife, and so was depression[67]. Leisure activities were minimal. Those who were accompanied by their wives suffered equally, as their spouses had little to do and did not even benefit from the relief of challenging employment and long work hours. Illness and disease were a constant threat; especially as sanitary amenities and public health measures were minimal. This was especially the case in Abadan, where no sewerage or sanitary infrastructure had yet been put in place to cope with the huge population increase (see chapter 6)[68]. Waterborne diseases, in particular, were a serious concern where drinking water caused typhoid on a regular basis, a deadly disease prior to the invention of antibiotics. APOC physician Dr Young worked continuously to improve the supply of water in the Fields through various schemes. These involved attempts at building distillation plants, piping water from the brackish river Tembi, or considering the option of piping water all the way from Abadan, constructing filtration plants and so on. Eventually the inspiration was taken from a chlorination plant built in Ahvaz for the military (British) personnel. A water elevator was built at Tembi, with a pumping station and 30 kms of pipeline via Godar Landar to feed a chlorination plant at Masjed Soleyman. In the process “all native huts had to be removed from production areas” to make way for the water scheme[69]. The records do not contain any further details about the ‘native huts’ and the evicted people.
The provision of drinking water was vital for the survival of operations and “to keep labor at fields in summer”[70]. Working conditions were indeed infernal. Work was backbreaking and incessant, 9 to 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week[71]. Temperatures were grueling during the long summers, and freezing in winter; humidity was at times unbearably high. In some ways work was a substitute for the near total absence of social life, at least for the Europeans. “The heat of the eight months summer ranges between 100 and 125 degrees in the shade (55C); the loneliness of the life, the almost total lack of social intercourse, and the absence of most of the ordinary social amenities of life make work a necessity as a relief from utter boredom. They do work”[72].
Industrial time meant continuous work hours, regardless of season or climate, an unfamiliar practice to ordinary local workers, pastoralists and peasants whose whole mode of life was built around adjusting to the seasonal rhythms of nature[73]. But here they had to adapt to an altogether different universe, even in the highlands of Masjed Soleyman. The oilfields were a place of deafening noise, mortally dangerous conditions, and great pollution. Percussion drills pounded constantly at 40 beats per minute creating a deafening sound that echoeded in the mountains. Water and chemicals were pumped into boreholes and the spewed out waste was dumped. The workplace was highly dangerous as highly flammable oil and gas were released under great pressure. Then there was the pervasive smell of gas: “the oil is held in the rock under great pressure, and its discharge is heavily laden with gas. In its early days this was allowed to escape naturally, with resultant danger to the workmen; so much so that men who could not return to their huts by sundown had to remain where they were for the night, as the gas, being heavier than air, hung in the low lying ground and formed an impassable barrier; several lives were lost in that way”. The author of these words was an aviation squadron leader who had served during the war and had been based in Iraq (1921-1924), and was now reporting to the Royal Central Asian Society during one of the increasingly common propaganda events held for APOC at colonial scientific venues.
Explaining that he was contributing to “writing the romance of the fields”, Squadron leader Cooper went on to allay fears by mentioning that by this time the gas was no longer simply released, but was being flared. He described poetically and without irony the effect of tall pipes permanently spewing flames, heat, and smoke into the air as “ a wonderful site at night time” that “would have given Dorée a wonderful inspiration for an illustration to the ‘inferno’”! However, he went on to add “the smell of gas is a permanency in the fields; in some places it is worse than others, but you are never quite free from it; it brought back many unpleasant war memories, and at night it was difficult to refrain from instinctively reaching out to make sure your gas mask was round your neck”[74]. This alarmed the APOC chairman, John Cadman, who interjected in the public meeting to contradict the Squadron Leader by emphasizing how clean, safe, and hygienic the operations were: “Anyone who has visited oilfields in different parts of the world, mostly controlled and carried on by foreigners, will have been struck by the dirty slovenly appearance of the spot from which oil is obtained. You do not see that in the Persian field. You see no oil and as I say, you smell no gas. All you see or hear is a busy hive of industry”[75]. 

In Abadan the smell of gas was not as acute, but working conditions were equally dangerous, as demonstrated by the devastating fire at the refinery in 1922[76]. Work was extremely demanding, and harsh; while living circumstances were if anything much worse for tens of thousands who lived in temporary shelters and in filthy circumstances. New neighborhoods were informally named after the temporary industrial refuse used to erect shelters, such as Kaqaz Abad (Made of Paper), Halabi Abad (made of Tin Drums), or Hassir Abad (Made of Reeds), Chador Abad (Made of Tents)[77]. Conditions were terrible, especially for the workers and migrants; but they improved considerably for the Europeans and the artisans and skilled workers, with visible dualism of the segregated city creating seething resentment. Manuchehr Farmanfarmaian, reminisced about the appalling conditions in the 1950s “In winter the earth flooded and became a flat, perspiring lake…[in summer] the dwellings of Kaghazabad, cobbled from rusted oil drums hammered flat, into sweltering ovens…In the British section of Abadan there were lawns, rose beds, tennis courts, swimming pools, and clubs; in Kaghazabad there was nothing – not a tea shop, not a bath, not a single tree”[78].
Since virtually everything had to be imported, including basic food items, economic life on the island was organized through market relations and money exchange, where everything had a price. Under these circumstances it was not surprising that labor recruitment was a major challenge for the Company during these early years and in the aftermath of the war. The negative image of APOC and apprehension about working conditions in the oil industry in Khuzestan are evident in the following list of questions from successful job applicants who had been offered a position in Iran. The Company’s London Office forwarded these queries to Khuzestan, as the potential recruits were demanding further clarification before accepting the job offer. The questions reveal the foremost concerns among qualified recruits who were weighing whether to accept the position of oil well engineer: The inquiries were about the state of health in Khuzestan, death rates, average temperatures, social conditions, the number of white people, prospects for advancement, salaries, vacations, costs of living, prospects for savings, if the company provided free servants, whether individuals had to cook for themselves, had to eat in a general mess, or were going to be provided with personal cooks and servants, and so on[79]. The realization of the significant impact of its negative image in recruiting employees of various skills became one of the major inducements for the Company to evaluate the necessity of improving the working and living conditions in the oil areas, in order to create a less harsh environment where attracting employees would not be such a major challenge.
Soon after the war the nationality of the workforce became a politically sensitive topic, mainly for geopolitical reasons. The changing global landscape had began to effect the oil habitus in Abadan as political events beyond the local confines of Khuzestan affected the attitudes of workers, the Company management, the local population, and the political agents of the Iranian and British governments alike. While labor requirements in each job category had their own specifics dynamics, nevertheless a number of preferential treatments began to be observed, often informally. Initially, the prejudices were professional. For example, Canadian drillers began to be seen in a negative light as they kept having frictions with Iranians and others on the job[80]. After some clashes between the Canadians and Iranian workers in 1919, a follow up note a month later concluded that, “We should exercise a preference for men with experience in the east”[81]. But more was at stake than practical colonial knowhow in eastern settings. Regarding skilled workers and staff, the Company as well as the British Government’s preference in the postwar years shifted toward excluding non-British nationals, especially the Americans, in light of heightened international rivalries and Britain’s attempts to consolidate its exclusive sphere of influence in the Persian Gulf. Attempting to coordinate APOC policy with the interests of the British Government, Cadman (APOC Chairman), Loraine (Ambassador in Tehran), Chamberlain (Foreign Secretary) and Oliphant (his senior adviser) discussed how to counter Iran’s deep distrust of Britain, and the rising danger of the US as a rival. They were not above using Iran’s foreign debt, its long coveted railroads project, and the benefits and social programs initiated by the oil industry as pressure points to cajole or bully Iran back into British arms (chapter 2). In particular, they were apprehensive about the role of Arthur Millspaugh’s financial reforms mission, and the danger that his “Pressure to interest the US in the revival of Persia means the balance will be tilted in favor of the American industry”. They agreed to wait until Millspaugh was gone, and then the Iranians would have no option but come around to Britain[82]. APOC moved to reduce its dependence on American personnel and technology. Cadman wrote to Loraine to emphasize that the Company was doing its patriotic job by helping Iran build the strategic Dezful-Khoramabad road, “without any profit to the Company” (he enclosed an estimate of costs of surveying and construction), “to extend cheap petrol products in Northern Iran to counter Soviet influence”. He also highlighted the Company’s commitment to “education works in Khuzistan” by building two primary schools in the oilfields, maintaining the school at Ahvaz, adding a secondary school there; supporting the hard pressed government schools in Abadan, Mohammareh, and Ahvaz; and even selecting a few students from Iran and sending them to Britain for University training in petroleum sciences and engineering[83].
Of course, there were severe limits on the strategy of keeping rivals out of the Iran market. International power rivalries had to be accommodated, nationalist feelings had to be acknowledged, and the severe financial limits of post war Britain had to be managed, especially as it came to the US which had become Britain’s largest creditor as well as competitor (chapter 2). Thus Italian workers were allowed to be hired in several Trucial States[84] to accommodate Italy’s demand as wartime Ally for a share of the spoils; in Iraq APOC had to accept shared ownership of the Turkish Petroleum Company, later Iraqi Petroleum Company, after the Germans and Ottomans had been expelled and replaced by Shell and Americans; and in Saudi Arabia APOC had to accommodate the American demands for a significant presence there[85]. However, in the case of Iran, by far the largest and the only proven producer of oil at the time, APOC accepted no such compromise, and the pressure was on to exclusively recruit British nationals and professionals for staffing the higher echelons of the oil operations.
Nevertheless, as we shall see, Iranian politicians and nationalists continued to exert pressure for the greater ‘Iranianization’ of the Company, including among the higher ranks. For the next six decades, until the 1979 revolution, the issue of greater participation and management by Iranian nationals over the hierarchy of oil operations remained a major ingredient of official Iranian nationalism, a dynamic that was very much shared with elite resource nationalism in most of the other postcolonies and developing nations that were producing raw materials for the global market under the tutelage of multi national corporations[86] (see concluding section of this chapter).
As for unskilled workers, both the necessity of accommodating local allies, such as the Bakhtiyari Khans and Sheikh Khaz’al, as well as the terms of the D’Arcy Concession, compelled the Company to hire Iranian workers. In the early years, hiring large numbers of unskilled tribesmen and pastoralists in work gangs that were subcontracted through tribal intermediaries was acceptable for the kind of manual labor involved in building the infrastructure of drilling, transporting rigs and pipelines, setting up drill towers, building pumping stations, and the equally backbreaking manual labor of road building, laying pipelines, and building the ports and the refinery[87].
“The local laborer is well paid, but has to pay something to the head of his gang, and the head of his village, who in turn has to pay the tribal chiefs. It is rough and ready and very cheap system fo taxation, not so harsh as to discourage enterprise…it is much cheaper [and less troublesome and resentment-creating tan our Indian system] – no officials, no pensions, no paper.”[88]

In these earlier years the transitory and impermanent nature of unskilled workers was an advantage to the Company. So long as work-gang captains supplied the numbers and maintained discipline the fact that nomad and peasant recruits were treating the wage work as a temporary and seasonal source of monetary revenue, and would return to their agrarian lives of sheep herding or planting and tending their fields during the migration or harvest season, was not a major concern and conveniently fit into and reinforced the convenient stereotype of the ‘lazy native’: “Food is so cheap that the Oil Company must, paradoxically, pay higher wages to get people to work at all. Men’s needs are few and they are ‘lazy’. In other words, their standards of living includes a large element of leisure, and who shall blame them?”[89]

The Company appreciated the cheapness of the casual labor, and the freedom to avoid any social obligations that risked to further burden it, such as providing housing, healthcare, or other costly demands and services that a more permanent labor force would require. In their arrangements with local magnates all such social obligations fell on the shoulders of Bakhtiyari Khans and Sheikh Khaz’al. The Company would simply pay them and expect them to supply, support, and discipline the workers through their own internal arrangements[90]. However, as soon as the initial stages of building the infrastructure were completed and the operations were in full flow, the labor situation began to change and the necessity of planning for a more permanent workforce could no longer be ignored. There were a number of even greater issues at stake: In 1908 when oil was first discovered in Masjed Soleyman, the global petroleum industry was in relative infancy. By 1918 this was no longer the case (See chapter 4) as oil was now a major global industrial, economic, and chemical enterprise that was fast becoming intertwined with the entire fabric of the Fordist regime of accumulation. As the scale of operations in Khuzestan expanded and became more sophisticated technically and scientifically, the nature of the ‘unskilled’ labor force required for carrying out the operations also changed. The Company could no longer afford to rely only on temporary workers and illiterate peasants and nomads to handle dangerous and expensive material, and to carry out sophisticated work processes. Nor could it afford to train workers only to see them disappear at harvest time or during the migration season. Workers in the new industry had to be time and motion disciplined. They had to become reliable for the industrial hierarchy and the fragmented and minute division of labor that characterized the new industrial relations. They needed to become solely dependent on wages and dependent on the market, so that alternative economic and social modes of existence would not offer them relative autonomy from the labor market.
The imperative to treat laborers as social beings, or as ‘human capital’ in the present day corporate parlance, rather than an anonymous and interchangeable mass of precariously employed raw material, was gradually emerging in the interwar years not only in Britain and Europe, but also in the colonies and semi colonies (chapter 4). Frederick Cooper in his study of changing labor relations with the dockworkers, miners, and railroad workers of Mombasa in the 1930s and 1940s[91] investigated the marked shift of attitude among large employees and colonial officials toward labor relations, in response to the surprising emergence of labor radicalism and waves of strikes.
Employers and colonial officials were caught off guard when confronted with the consequences of creating an anonymous mass of casual and cheap workers, together with floating populations in towns. The expectation among employers and colonial officials that this reserve army of labor was too atomized to act with unity and discipline was dispelled with shock, fear, and grudging admiration after the strike waves of 1939 and 1947. In Kenya, casual labor was seen as the culprit, and in response a process began to abolish the practice of daily hiring and replace it with an established core of regular workers. This change was accompanied by the increasing bureaucratization of labor relations as a way of regulating work conditions, giving an outlet to grievances, and generally alleviating class tensions and increasing productivity by giving a greater stake in society to workers. These adjustments were accompanied by municipal reform policies, to improve the urban social life of the floating and anonymous masses by creating an orderly, contended, and hard working city free from the dangerous masses[92].
These 1930s and 1940s processes and reactions that Cooper investigates were not exceptional to colonial Africa; much earlier they had begun to enter the repertoire of corporate and governmental practices in wartime Europe and Britain (see chapter 4), and soon after they came to affect and shape the oil habitus in places like Abadan and Khuzestan. The 1929 Colonial Development Act had already recast the approach to labor and commodities markets in the colonies as an extension of the domestic British economy, rather than a mere source of surplus extraction[93]. However, local conditions have a habit of imposing their own imperatives and, as we saw in previous chapters, the questions of the boundaries of political sovereignty, and the ongoing frictions between the central government, local social dynamics in Khuzestan, and Oil Company needs and practices, were interacting to shape conditions in Abadan. The process of turning Abadan from a chaotic boomtown into an orderly city began under these circumstances. It started with the Oil Company’s realization that attracting adequate workers and employees would only get harder if the urban and living conditions continued as they were; and that the “dangerous masses” populating the island could no longer be ignored due to pressing public health hazards, and the potential political threats posed by intensifying class tensions, urban discontent, and political friction with the Iranian government. Oil workers living on the Island or in Masjed Soleyman were vital to the Company operation, yet they needed to be made reliable by proper training to acquire better skills, permanently accepting wage work and industrial discipline, and developing more solid loyalty to the Company rather than continuing the hybrid patterns of mixing occasional wage work with agrarian and pastoral lives that were sustained through tribal and kinship networks. The central government on the other hand, was coming to realize that it could wrest control and sovereignty over its border territories and populations only if it committed to providing the minimal kinds of civic protections and social services that national citizenship claimed to provide. Workers and urban citizens of Abadan, who had to negotiate their difficult deracination from their former social lives with the new relations of urban proximity, industrial discipline, wage labor, and market relations, had to build new forms of urban solidarity in order to be able to stake a claim in the new city.

Having discussed the labor issues that emerged after the war, I will continue in the following sections to investigate several other key aspects of the changes that took place in the urban life of Abadan against the larger background of events that were outlined in the former chapters and the previous sections of this chapter. I will first investigate the public relations machinery set up by APOC as part of the attempt to improve its corporate reputation, in today’s jargon to ‘rebrand’ itself, by inventing a new and more positive public image of the oil industry. This was not done purely through propaganda; it had to be accompanied by tangible actions toward improving actual conditions before it could become convincing. Next we will investigate the public education policies adopted and implemented by the Oil Company with the intention of creating modern citizens and workers. Public education was a doubleedged sword, as it was also the prerequisite for complying with the intense political demands of the Iranian government and the public for the greater ‘Iranianization’ of the oil complex. The next chapter will continue the investigation of public health and sanitation measures as prerequisites for creating a safe and attractive city, and a healthy and productive population, and link these trends with the struggle over the bazaar of Abadan, as the competing visions of creating a safe built environment and a modern productive population came together with the aim of setting the stage for the future development of Abadan.


Notes :
39. Thomson, “Abadan in Its Early Days.”

40. Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, 1:288–290.

41. Total British troops in Near/Middle East during 1914-1918 were nearly 3 million. At their maximum strength they stood at 1.3 million. They suffered 303 thousand casualties during this period. Roger Adelson, London and the Invention of the Middle East: Money, Power, and War, 1902-1922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 171.

42. Ibid. The Motorized transport vehicles operating with an internal combustion engine included trucks, motorcycles, cars, armored vehicles, etc.

43. Visser, “The Gibraltar That Never Was.” Visser notes a range of commercial firms operating in Basra and southern Iraq (and Iran), mainly in river transport, export of commercial agricultural products, and import of manufactured goods.

44. Stefan Tetzlaff, “The Turn of the Gulf Tide: Empire, Nationalism, and South Asian Labor Migration to Iraq, C. 1900–1935,” International Labor and Working-Class History 79, Special Issue 1 (2011): 7– 27.

45. “Lt. General Sir P.H.N. Lake, Commanding Officer” 4 March 1916, “British or other firms are prohibited form engaging locally other than local labor, unless they are recent arrivals who haven’t worked for other local firms or have discharge papers”, BP 68779

46. BP 70146, “Letters Regarding the Fields and Pipelines, to and from Mohammerah and London, April 1916- May 1920”, see dispatches from March 1917- 12 June 1918; BP 70145, “Need for the expansion of the physical infrastructure”, 24 January 1919

47. 19 September 1917, BP 70146

48. F. A. C. Forbes-Leith, Checkmate; Fighting Tradition in Central Persia, (New York: Arno Press, 1973), 20–21.

49. BP 70145, General Manager in Mohammerah, 21 February 1919

50. BP 70145, General Manager in Mohammerah, 18 February 1918; BP 70146; “Letters Regarding the Fields and Pipelines, to and from Mohammerah and London”, 18 December, 1918

51. General Manager, Mohammerah, to Arnold Wilson, Basra 2 October 1916, BP 68779

52. Atabaki, “Far from Home, but at Home; Indian Migrant Workers in the Iranian Oil Industry.”

53. BP 68779, 6 August 1916

54. “Expert labour shortage”, 18 February 1918, BP 70145

55. Atabaki, “Far from Home, but at Home; Indian Migrant Workers in the Iranian Oil Industry.”

56. BP 70145, “Mohammerah to London”, 18 February 1919; 6 December 1918; 20 December 1918; 20 December 1918

57. BP 68779, 9 March 1917; 10 October 1917.

58. BP 68779, 3 March 2017.

59. BP 68779, 9 March 1917

60. BP 68779, 6 April 1917; See also the APOC correspondence with Arnold Wilson regarding the declining state of security on 28 January 1915; 16 December 2015.

61. These included 90 tons of mensem (local flour), 300 t of barley, and 420 t of straw. 4 June 1917, BP 68799

62. Geoffrey Jones, Banking and Empire in Iran: Volume 1: The History of the British Bank of the Middle East, vol. 1 (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 140–156, 266–268.

63. Ibid., 1:273–274.

64. Ibid., 1: 128, 201, 234.

65. Ely Banister Soane met Arnold Wilson in Mohammareh and he arranged a job for him with APOC. See John Marlowe, Late Victorian: The Life of Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson (London: Cresset, 1967), 60.

66. Ahmad Latifpour, Dezful dar Gozar-e Zaman (Tehran: Farhang-e Maktoub, 2008), 129–131.

67. High alcohol consumption remained a persistent concern. In 1931 a staff assessment by a visiting inspector stated that liquor consumption per English employee stood at 3.89 bottles of gin, 3 bottles of vermouth, 133 large beers, and 18.35 bottles of whiskey per six months. These were spirits supplied by the Company, and excluded any additional liquor purchased elsewhere. “Visit to Persia; Staff Matters”, November/December 1931, BP 096431

68. Jones, Banking and Empire in Iran, 1:145–155, 278–283. See also Gerald Butt, The Lion in the Sand; the British in the Middle East (London: Bloombury, 1995), Chapter 5.

69. BP 70146; “Letters Regarding the Fields and Pipelines, to and from Mohammerah and London”, from 13 April 1916 to 27 March 1919.

70. BP 70145, Letter #2717, 14 May 1919; Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907-1914, 38–39.

71. BP 70145, 24 June 1919; Thomson, “Abadan in Its Early Days.”

72. Cooper, “A Visit to the Anglo Persian Oilfields,” 154.

73. For the differentiation of labor time and industrial time see E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” in Customs in Common (New York: The New Press, 1993), 352–403.

74. Cooper, “A Visit to the Anglo Persian Oilfields,” 149-151. Other speakers at this session were also prominent luminaries, such as the chairmen of APOC, senior military commanders and parliamentarians. It is worth adding that once oil was depleted in Masjed Soleyman and Haftgel, the problem of gas release became a deadly hazard for these historic oil cities. Masjed Soleyman, currently an industrial wasteland and shell of the city that once was, has population of more than quarter of a million, who suffer from chronic poverty and unemployment, and occasional deadly releases of gas that cause significant casualties. See Ehsani, “Social Engineering and Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns.”.

75. Ibid.: 160.

76. Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, 1:430.

77. Chamseddine Amiralaii, Khal’e Yad az Sherkat-e Sabeq-e Naft-e Iran va Engelis (Dispossession of the Former Anglo Iranian Oil Company) (Tehran: Dehkhoda, 1978), 126–137; Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, 1:432.

78. Manuchehr Farmanfarmayan, Blood and Oil (New York: Modern Library, 1997), 184-185.

79. BP 70146; 29 July 1919

80. Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907-1914, 23, 32.

81. BP 70146; “Letters Regarding the Fields and Pipelines, to and from Mohammerah and London”, July 31, 1919; 21 August 1919

82. “Loraine to Chamberlain”, 14 January 1926, “Oliphant to Cadman”, February 1926, BP 71183

83. “Cadman to Loraine” 8 May 1926, BP 71183

84. See I. J. Seccombe and R. I. Lawless, “Foreign Worker Dependence in the Gulf, and the International Oil Companies: 1910-50,” International Migration Review 20, no. 3 (October 1, 1986): 548–74; Ian J. Seccombe, “A Disgrace to American Enterprise: Italian Labour and the Arabian American Oil Company in Saudi Arabia, 194454,” Immigrants & Minorities Immigrants & Minorities 5, no. 3 (1986): 233–57. Trucial States refers to the City States carved out of the Arabian Peninsula’s coast on the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. They were called thus because of the series of treaties (Truce) they signed with Britain in the 1820’s – 1840’s, becoming de facto its protectorates until they gained their independence in the mid 20th century. See W. Taylor Fain, American Ascendance and British Retreat in the Persian Gulf Region (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Adelson, London and the Middle East; Glen Balfour-Paul, The End of Empire in the Middle East: Britain’s Relinquishment of Power in Her Last Three Arab Dependencies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Feroz Ahmad, “A Note on the International Status of Kuwait before November 1914,”
International Journal of Middle East Studies 24, no. 2 (1992): 181–87; John Marlowe, The Persian Gulf in the Twentieth Century (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962).

85. Helmut Mejcher, Imperial Quest for Oil: Iraq 1910-1928 (London: Ithaca Press, 1976); Stephen Longrigg, Oil in the Middle East: Its Discovery and Development, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961).

86. The literature on the nationalist demands for the nativization of the management and ownership of extractive industries is vast. For Venezuelan oil see Miguel Tinker Salas, The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009). For copper in Zambia see Burawoy, The Colour of Class on the Copper Mines, from African Advancement to Zambianization; James Ferguson, Expectations of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). For the case of Iran seMostafa Fateh, Panjah Sal Naft-e Iran (Tehran: Sherkat Sahami-e Chehr, 1956); Foad Rohani, Tarikh-e Melli Shodan-e San’at-e Naft-e Iran (Tehran: Jibi, 1973)e . In Iran the nationalist pressure for nativizing the management of transnational corporate operations was not limited to the oil industry, but also involved other economic concerns, such as banks. See for example Abolhassan Ebtehaj’s discussion of the intense resentment of Iranians at their treatment as inferiors and for being excluded from the higher management of the Imperial Bank by the bank’s British directors. Abolhassan Ebtehaj, Khaterat-e Abolhassan Ebtehaj [The Memoirs of Abolhassan Ebtehaj] (Tehran: Entesharat-e Elmi, 1996), Vol 1, Pp. 26–29.

87. Touraj Atabaki, “From ‘Amaleh (Labor) to Kargar (Worker): Recruitment, Work Discipline and Making of the Working Class in the Persian/Iranian Oil Industry,” International Labor and WorkingClass History 84, (2013): 159–175.

88. Wilson, SW Persia, 53

89. Wilson, SW Persia, 140

90. Arnold Wilson, “Confidential: Bakhtiyari relations and land purchases”, 24 February 1926; “Notes on conference held at Tehran”, 22-27 April 1926, BP71183. See conclusion to chapter 3, and the discussion of the transition from formal to the real subsumption of labor to capital.
91 Frederick Cooper, On the African Waterfront (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).
92 Ibid. See also Frederick Cooper, “Urban Space, Industrial Time, and Wage Labor in Africa,” in
Struggle for the City: Migrant Labor, Capital, and the State in Urban Africa, ed. Frederick Cooper (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983), 7–50; Robert Home, Of Planting and Planning: The Making of British Colonial Cities (London: E & FN Spon, 1997).
93 George C. Abbott, “A Re-Examination of the 1929 Colonial Development Act,” Economic History Review 24, no. 1 (1971): 68–81; Frederick Cooper, “Modernizing Bureaucrats, Backward Africans. and the Development Concept,” in International Development and the Social Sciences, ed. Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 64–92; Michael Cowen and Robert Shenton, “The Invention of Development,” in Power of Development, ed. Jonathan Crush (New York: Routledge, 1995), 27–43.


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