Indian Migrant Workers in the Iranian Oil Industry 1908–1951
This essay revisits the life and times of Indian migrant workers in Persia/Iran during the first half of the twentieth century, and discusses their contributions to the founding, development, and eventual consolidation of the Persian/Iranian oil industry. A number of factors that shaped this experience are investigated. They include the geographic and ethno-religious origins of Indian laborers; the policies adopted by the oil company (APOC), labor agencies, and the Government of India to recruit workers and regulate their working conditions and terms of contract; and the lived experience of the workers once they were hired and began working in the Persian/Iranian oil industry. Across nearly half a century, Indian workers in the Persian/Iranian oil industry faced a variety of labor experiences ranging from coerced recruitment as indentured workers during wartime to wage-labor with a negotiated contract and protection under colonial labor laws. I will discuss how these workers responded to the various recruitment policies, the demanding working conditions and labor discipline imposed on them, their remuneration and wage structures, and their living conditions and housing situation. The record of the lengthy presence of Indian workers in the oil industry provides us with numerous stories of contestation, resistance, and negotiations for better working and living conditions. Ultimately, the story of Indian migrant workers is also a story of an accommodation with an emerging multinational corporation. I situate the history of migrant labor agency within the framework of colonial labor practices. By examining the workers’ encounter with multiple class, and ethnic and territorial identities, I survey the changing relations of both solidarity and discord between Indian migrant workers and indigenous Iranian workers.