Conditions of life and work for the AIOC’s Iranian oil workers in Abadan during 1930s and 1940s, prior to the nationalization. Source: Farmanfarmaian, M. and R. Farmanfarmaian. Blood and Oil: Memoirs of a Persian Prince. NY: Random House, 1997. Pp.184-5.
Wages were fifty cents a day. There was no vacation pay, no sick leave, no disability compensation. The workers lived in a shanty town called Kaghazabad, or Paper City, without running water or electricity, let alone such luxuries as iceboxes or fans. In winter, the earth flooded and became a flat, perspiring lake. The mud in town was knee-deep, and canoes ran alongside the roadways for transport. When the rains subsided, clouds of nipping, small-winged flies rose from the stagnant waters to fill the nostrils, collecting in black mounds along the rims of cooking pots and jamming the fans at the refinery with an unctuous glue.
Summer was worse. It descended suddenly without a hint of spring. The heat was torrid, the worst I’ve ever known – sticky and unrelenting – while the wind and sandstorms whipped off the desert hot as a blower. The dwellings of Kaghazabad, cobbled from rusted oil drums hammered flat, turned into sweltering ovens. The temperature climbed to 130 degree F in the shade. At the refinery the boilers and open flares stoked the already sizzling air another 20 or 30 degrees; at the wells the exposed piping literally boiled. In every crevice hung the foul, sulfurous stench of burning oil – a pungent reminder that every day twenty thousand barrels, or one million tons a year, were being consumed indiscriminately for the functioning of the refinery, and AIOC never paid the government a cent for it.
To the management of AIOC in their pressed ecru shirts and air-conditioned offices, the workers were faceless drones – just as they were in the meatpacking plants outside Chicago, the coal mines of Wales and the sweatshops of Hong Kong. The habits of the “natives” – eating food with their hands, for example – disgusted the British officials. Not only were the British blissfully unaware that their own customs – eating with a fork that had at one point been in someone else’s mouth – were in turn considered unclean and uncouth by the Persians, but they failed to see that fresh water for the workers to wash their hands before and after their meals was therefore critical. Piping water to Kaghazabad so that it could be wasted on foolish ablutions was not in the company plans. And so the workers were reduced to getting their water from pumps that ran only a few hours a day, and their lives became a constant fight against the very filth that their superiors so witheringly condemned.
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. The tiled reflecting pool and shaded central square that were part of every Iranian town, no matter how poor or dry, were missing here. The unpaved alleyways were emporiums for rats. The man at the grocery shop sold his wares while sitting in a barrel of water to avoid the heat. Only the shriveled, mud-brik mosque in the old quarter offered hope in the form of divine redemption. Even British forign secretary Ernest Bevin felt compelled to remark in 1946 that “although we have a Socialist Government in this country, there is no reflection of that fact in the social conditions [of] this great oil production in Persia.”