Labor and the Social Question in Interwar Abadan

Staff Quarters in Braim Neighborhood of Abadan 1950's
Staff Quarters in “Braim” Neighborhood of Abadan 1950’s


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)” ]


As APOC’s operations kept expanding exponentially throughout the war years, the challenge of recruiting and maintaining an adequate labor force took on greater urgency. Once the initial phases of oil exploration and extraction had been successfully completed, the subsequent stages of expansion posed an even greater challenge. Some of these new challenges were scientific and technical, for example mastering techniques of handling the heavy Persian crude and adjusting refining techniques to extract new chemical derivatives from the petroleum and its byproducts. The main products from Abadan were lubricants and fuels for internal combustion engines and lighting (see table 1), items urgently required by the military during wartime, and after the war for mass consumer products, transportation, and aviation.

Aside from labor recruitment and maintenance there were other challenges of a different practical nature. These involved the exponentially growing investments in the development of fixed assets and infrastructure, such as the completion and expansion of the all important networks of roads, pipelines, a local railroad, shipping and loading docks, the storage and refinery structures at Abadan, as well as the vast array of the necessary social and administrative facilities without which the oil business could not function. The latter included hospitals, dispensaries, and public health measures, housing for staff and clerks, office buildings, company stores, jetties and unloading docks, schools and training facilities, guards and security measures, etc[17]. Meeting these challenges required substantial inputs of expertise, material, and manpower, not to mention growing capital investments, all of which were in short supply during the war years, and even more so after. In Abadan and the Fields most material had to be imported from elsewhere, creating an additional logistical challenge of its own.
“No commodity of any kind is produced in the fields: all food stuffs, wines, clothing, and other necessities of modern life have to be imported form home or India…Something like 15,000 people have to be fed and clothed from these stores, so it may be imagined what quantity of stocks has to be held…Fresh meat and vegetables are rarely obtainable, but one heard very little of the monotony of subsisting on tinned foodstuffs. Anything within reason can be purchased, and the Company takes great trouble in this most important department…the prices were most reasonable in this out of the way spot”[18]. This was equally true of basic construction material for housing and facilities, such as brick, steel, etc. as well as all machinery, and technical supplies. All repairs had to be done on the spot. George Thompson, one of the first APOC employees to be sent from Burma Oil Company to Abadan around 1909 recalled, “Abadan was fine for the refinery but had no sand, stone, lime for construction purposes”. Labor supply was also a major problem as there were no skilled workers available locally. There were plenty of unskilled labor in the area, “but of very low quality”. The supply of material and labor were crucial priorities. Bricks had to be manufactured and imported from Basra; stone, sand, lime, gypsum (gatch) from Bushehr and Kuwait, delivered by riverboats[19].
For the Company provisioning its employees was a challenging task, but in the boomtown, the maintenance of teh supply of food and living materials for the teaming population not employed by the Company was a nightmare. While the Company took care to supply its European staff with imported tinned food and wine bottles, its workers had still to find accommodation, pay rent, find food and safe drinking water in a place that did not readily supply these basic necessities locally. Inflation, speculation, and shortages could easily lead to eruptions of urban protests, or induce workers to go elsewhere (see below), resort to criminal activities such as smuggling, or be drawn to radical subversive ideas. The scale of the expansion and the constant intensity of activities meant that the vital question of reliable availability of adequate and sufficient labor power remained a paramount concern for the Oil Company. As the war came to an end this issue took on even greater urgency. The Company classified its labor force in broad categories, as skilled, semi skilled, and unskilled; a practice that continues to date in the Iranian oil industry. The non-manual employees included clerks, managers, and staff, had their own sub categorizations. In the early years the semi skilled workers were by and large recruited from the Indian Subcontinent, the casual unskilled workers were mostly Iranian, and the senior staff and management were British, together with some Europeans and North Americans. Table 2 shows the total range of Oil Company employees before nationalization:

The figures clearly indicate that wartime productions during both World Wars had significant impacts on the scale of production and employment. Other significant junctures were 1920 and 1922 when strikes by Indian skilled workers and some Iranians led to the preparation for their long-term replacement of these with Iranians, although this was a protracted process (see below). The dynamics of employment and production were often affected by fractuous negotiations with the Iranian central government. This occurred especially during the periods of major political transition that were coupled with labor strife, such as 1920-1922, and 1925-1926, and during the testy renegotiations of the oil concession that lasted from 1928-1933 (as we shall discuss in the following pages). One of the recurring demands of the Iranian became the most significant center of industrial activity not only in Khuzestan, but throughout Iran, as well as a major shipping outlet to the outside world (see table 6). The building of the refinery and the storage and shipping facilities required the direct involvement of a significant number of people in production, ranging from manual and semi skilled workers to skilled technicians, engineers, chemists and scientists, office workers, accountants, and managers; but it also required an equally significant number of support staff to make possible the reproduction of those working in production, such as servants, cooks, drivers, guards, storekeepers, nurses, etc. The result was the exponential growth of Abadan where by 1925 there were at least an additional fifteen thousand newcomers who were directly employed by the Oil Company (table 6).
Formal figures such as Oil Company employees, inform us little about the actual scale and the composition of the fast growing population of the Island, or about the more complex social dynamics taking place there. For example, all these company employees were men, but how many had come there with their families? Company records at this period only account for European and especially British employees with minor, almost negligible personal and specific details. More recently some effort has been made to shed light on Indian migrant workers in Abadan[20]. But the records remain silent when it comes to the Iranian (the eponymous Persian) employees, who were routinely depicted as anonymous aggregate numbers. This silence affected even some of the Europeans who worked there. For example, in 1918 the Company asked the British Depute Commissioner in Basra to grant an exception on wartime travel restrictions for “Several married men whose wives have been out there 4 to 5 years, and quite apart from being overdue for home leave their general healths are affected”[21]. Personal reminiscences also mention a meager social life for “the tiny European community”[22]. But aside from these snippets there seem to be scant further details that have yet come to light about the lives and experiences of these Europeans, and even less about the lives and experiences of the far more numerous indigenous populations.
Iranian state archives also provide little information in this regard; nor to my knowledge are there any published memoirs or oral histories from this era that reveal the intimate experiences of the thousands of Iranians who came to work in Abadan during this decisive period. Why did they come to this place to sell their work for wages? Were they attracted to the prospect of industrial work and wages, or had they no other option but to uproot and move there involuntarily? Had they come alone, or had their families and kin accompanied them? Once in Abadan did they fit into existing communities there, or did they have to struggle on their own? The term “Iranian” or “Persian” is itself vague, especially in this period when a coherent and homogeneous national identity had not yet been more systematically institutionalized through the uniform practices of mass education, conscription, mass media, bureaucratic individual documentation, and patriotic propaganda. As a result, the geographic, ethnic, linguistic, and kinship ties of these employees remain relatively vague. What manners of connections did they maintain with their communities of origin? How did these newcomers link the emerging urban life of Abadan to their original communities? This information would provide an important insight into the spatial linkages between the city and the countryside, the province, and the varied national spaces beyond the borders of Khuzestan. What sorts of webs and connections were linking Abadan to these other places via the social and personal networks maintained by these employees? Equally important is the question of gender, especially in a place that seems to have been mostly populated by males: workers, expatriates, soldiers, bureaucrats, shopkeepers, smugglers, and the precariously employed. What were the roles of women in this city? Who were they, and where had they come from? Did they work for money? If they kept house what sort of household did they run? As in all frontier boomtowns there were sex workers in Abadan, but the existing records reveal very little about the political economy of the women who were part of the market economy. Precious little is available on brothels, pimps, landlords, police attitudes and regulations of the sex trade, Company attitudes, the circulation of money in the sexual economy, and the women who had to sell their bodies as a commodity. As is often the case, the history of the oldest profession is rendered invisible through a mixture of moral denial or condemnation, patronizing compassion, and intentional and uncomfortable silence[23].


Many of these pertinent questions about the everyday lived realities of Iranian oil workers and Abadanis during this formative period remain as of yet unanswered by the material I have managed to excavate[24]. Even the growing literature of popular and academic local histories of urban and provincial Khuzestan are regrettably silent about these crucial social and geographic details when it comes to the interwar period[25]. The unavailability or the absence of any significant government records of personal and individual data, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, or of conscription records, property registration, individual tax records, criminal police records, or any official census material only add to the blank picture[26]. This heavy silence has its own significance, like the Isac Dineson story “The blank page” about the framed snow white sheet hung in public on the morrow of the nuptials[27]: In its silence the blank page inadvertently reveals its own story about what was deemed irrelevant to the gaze of those tasked with recording the course of events. But it also opens the possibility of imagining and conjuring our own reading of what the available information can tell us.
The significant silence is not limited to the social lives of Oil Company employees outside their place of employment, which would provide a window into the reproduction of labor power; it also involves the urban life of Abadan Town, a congested sprawl on the margins of the refinery and the shipping docks, but crucially also the setting for its continued operation since that was where most workers lived and all social life revolved around work, at least for the Iranians. As for the Europeans, the scanty early reminiscences reveal a life of hard work, of 12 hour workdays, year around, often including weekends, with little social activity except informal and periodic organized events. A tennis court was built sometime after 1912, but given the dire shortage of material and labor during wartime no club was built until the completion of the refinery[28]; an austere life indeed. There are no reliable figures for the total population of Abadan in mid 1920s, but existing estimates put the number at somewhere between 40 – 60 thousand, by then probably the largest concentration of population in Khuzestan[29]. Yet, in the absence of more detailed information we face a challenge in producing a thick description of the urban life of Abadan during this period, and of necessity some of our conclusions will remain deductive for the time being. With the sudden growth of the town myriad urban issues became pressing topics of concern, and with them came the attentive gaze of professional experts whose task was to manage and modify the challenges that faced life in Abadan and its refinery. In 1925 the Oil Company had invited J.M. Wilson, a Scottish architect and urban planner based in Baghdad and London, to visit Abadan and the fields to offer suggestions regarding the rising problems of housing and sanitation for the Company[30]. The central government of Iran instituted a new law in 1926 to establish municipalities, and one of the first was established in Abadan. J.M. Wilson returned soon after, this time permanently employed as chief architect and urban planner for APOC to plan a more comprehensive expansion of the Company areas in Abadan and the fields[31].
Public health had been a major area of concern, and one of the earliest and most urgent nodes of social policy making. Epidemics were a major threat to operations, and the insalubrious living conditions deterred not only Europeans but also Indians and Iraqis from seeking work there. Furthermore, establishing pubic health institutions and practices were becoming a major tenet of modernization and state building in Iran, as they had been in Europe, and government bureaucrats came to consider sanitation as one of the key measures of state accomplishment and progress[32] (see chapters 4 and 6).
Regarding labor relations, by mid 1940s the Oil Company had to resort to employing a specialist ‘Labor Attaché’ to deal exclusively with increasingly challenging labor management issues[33]. The Iranian government, likewise, had come to legislate labor laws, mainly in response to the growing frictions in the oil industry and their potential subversive spread elsewhere34. Public education became a primary concern of social policies, especially as it was linked to the mounting pressures for the ‘Iranianization’ of the labor force in the Oil Company. Without proper training and basic education the Oil Company would have faced continued difficulty in finding adequate recruits to work in the increasingly sophisticated refinery and oilworks, and to handle the hazardous and technically complex work details. More significantly, the Company gradually but unmistakably, began to view education as an investment in ‘human capital’[35]. With the shifts in the organization of industrial production, the advent of mass consumer society, and the rise of mass politics, workers were beginning to be conceptualized less as simply raw material or as cheap, anonymous, casual, and temporary inputs (chapter 4). Investing in properly training workers capable of handling more sophisticated and hazardous chemical and industrial operations was becoming an urgent business necessity for large coporations like APOC. Furthermore, education and training were exercises in disciplinary power intended to shape docile and loyal, as well as productive and efficient, employees[36]. They would prepare the next cohort by training the workers’ children to create a multigenerational repository of corporate culture. Furthermore, according to article 12
of the D’Arcy concession, “The workmen employed in the service of the Company shall be subjects of His Imperial Majesty the Shah, except the technical staff such as the managers, engineers, borers, and foremen”[37]. Although the replacement of all nonmanagerial wageworkers by Iranians did not take place prior to nationalization in 1951, nevertheless it entered Company policy, just as it became a major bone of contention with the central government. As a result, public education became part of the repertoire of social policies adapted with considerable reluctance by APOC in 1926.
In conclusion, ‘the social question’ emerged in Abadan in the interwar years, much like it had in post war Britain, in response to the transformations of the new regime of accumulation of capital, and against the background of the political premises of the nation state and the rise of mass politics[38]. These issues came to head during the pivotal years 1925-1926, and set the tone for the long-term development of the oil complex in Iran. In the rest of this chapter I will discuss this rise of the social question in Abadan, and the bazaar controversy that lay at the symbolic center of this historical shift.


Notes :
17. See Ronald Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, vol. 1 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 220–232.

18. A.R.C. Cooper, “A Visit to the Anglo Persian Oilfields,” Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society 13, no. 2 (1926): 153.

19. “Correspondence with Architects J.M.Wilson, H.C.Mason & Partners: 1927-1951”, BP 68848; George Thomson, “Abadan in Its Early Days,” Naft 7, no. 4 (July 1931): 14–18; Lindsey-Smith, “J.M. The Story of an Architect”; Crinson, “Abadan: Planning and Architecture under the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.”

20. Touraj Atabaki, “Far from Home, but at Home; Indian Migrant Workers in the Iranian Oil Industry,” 2014; Rasmus Elling, “On Lines and Fences; Labor, Community and Violence in an Oil City,” 2014.

21. BP 68779, “Correspondence with A.T Wilson Deputy British Commissioner Turco Persian Frontier Commission, November 1914-July 1919”, 1 November 1918.

22. Thomson, “Abadan in Its Early Days.”

23. The physical devastation of Abadan during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) has led to the destruction of relevant local archives stored in the city, such as police and customs records. Many of these records were not duplicated for the provincial and national headquarters. Thus far I have been unable to locate relevant records. Oral interviews have also proved difficult and of little value thus far, as there is general acknowledgment of the significance of sex workers, but little else in terms of substantial ethnographic information (see footnote 26 below).

24. I have made several research trips to the BP Archives at the University of Warwick (2000, 2002, and 2003); in addition to the British Library, Royal Institute of British Architects; and the Iranian National Archives (2005-2007). This argument is also based on ethnographic research in Abadan and Khuzestan over a period of 18 months in 1989-1992. See Kaveh Ehsani, “Arshiv-e Sherkat-e BP; Daricheh-yi Digar Bara-ye Tahqiqat-e Irani [BP Archives; a New Window for Iranian Studies],” Goftogu, no. 30 (2001): 199–203.

25. Lahsaeizadeh, Jame’eh Shenasi-e Abadan; Abbasi-Shahni, Tarikh-e Masjed Soleyman; Yousefi,
Tarikh-e Khorramshahr; Ahmad Latifpour, Tarikh-e Dezful (Tehran: Farhang-e Maktoub, 2008); Shakiba, Negahi beh Tarikh-e Mahshahr; Emam Shushtari, Tarikh-e Joghrafiyayi-e Khuzestan; Ahmad Kasravi, Zendegani-e Man: Dah Sal dar ʻAdliyeh va Chera az ʻAdliyeh Birun Amadam (Tehran: N/P, 1944); Kasravi, Tarikh-e Pansad Saleh Khouzestan; Lorimer, GPG; Mahmoud Daneshvar, Didani-ha va Shenidaniha-ye Iran, 2 vols. (Tehran: Ferdowsi, 1948).

26. It must be added that the physical destruction of the city of Abadan and Khorramshahr during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) are an additional cause of this absence, although many of these documents ought to have been duplicated as official correspondence, and be available in provincial center, Ahvaz, or the Capital, Tehran. My attempts at accessing such records or verifying their existence thus far have been unsuccessful.

27. Isak Dinesen, Last Tales (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 99–105. Dinesen’s short story is about a visit to an aristocratic palace where the bed sheets from the wedding night of each heir are framed and displayed on the walls as proof of the consummation and continuity of the legitimacy of the bloodline. One frame contains a snow white and unstained sheet. Appearing like a blank page, unlike all the others, it is not a story of predictable continuity, and has its own mystery to tell.

28. Thomson, “Abadan in Its Early Days”; G.B. Scott, “The First Survey of the Persian Oil Fields,” Naft 7, no. 2 (March 1931): 6–12. The most gripping description of European expatriate life at the time in Khuzestan remains Arnold T Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907-1914 (London: Oxford University Press, 1941).

29. For sources estimating the population of Abadan in the 1920s see chapter 6.

30. See J.M. Wilson’s enthusiastic account of his first visit to Abadan in Cooper, “A Visit to the Anglo Persian Oilfields,” 159.

31. Lindsey-Smith, “J.M. The Story of an Architect.”

32. Cyrus Schayegh, “A Sound Mind Lives in a Healthy Body: Texts and Contexts of Modernist Discourse of Health, 1910s-40s,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 37, no. 2 (2005): 167– 88; Amir Arsalan Afkhami, “The Sick Men of Persia: The Importance of Illness as a Factor in the Interpretation of Modern Iranian Diplomatic History,” Iranian Studies 36, no. 3 (2003); Floor, Public Health in Qajar Iran; Neligan, “Public Health in Persia, Part 1.”

33. Donald MacNeill: “The lessons of 1946; an essay on personnel problems of the oil industry in southern Iran”, January 1949, BP 118823

34. Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions; Atabaki and Ehsani, “Shifting Governmentality in the Shadow of Labor Activism: Revisiting the Roots and Impact of the 1929 Abadan Oil Workers’ Strike”; Floor, Labor and Industry in Iran, 1850-1941.

35. Michael E. Dobe, “A Long Slow Tutelage in Western Ways of Work: Industrial Education and the Constainement of Nationalism in Anglo- Iranian and ARAMCO, 1923-1963” (PhD Dissertation, Rutgers, 2008).

36. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977); Michael Burawoy, The Colour of Class on the Copper Mines: From African Advancement to Zambianization, Zambian Papers, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1972).

37. For the text of the D’Arcy Concession see Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, 1:640–643.
38 As an interesting footnote the famous Chicago School of Sociology emerged at approximately the same period, to formulate an academic and social response to the pressing issues of urban poverty and “the culture of poverty” in immigrant urban slums of Chicago, by considering the city itself as the site of social reproduction, as did feminist social movements, such as Jane Addams’ Hull House project. See Robert E. Park, Ernest Burgess, and Morriss Janowitz, The City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925); Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982), 151-180.

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