In June 2014, the Belarusian Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare approved a directive ‘On the amendment of the list of physically-demanding jobs and jobs with harmful and/or unsafe working conditions, for which women may not be recruited.’ The new regulations came into force in July.
The history of the list banning women in the countries of the former Soviet Union from certain occupations goes back to 1932. Sociologists and historians refer to this period (1929-1934) as ‘the Great Turning Point’ as it marked a retreat from the revolutionary family politics of the 1920s and a return to traditional norms. The list, which was officially justified on the grounds of protecting women and their reproductive health, was repeatedly modified with various amendments and additions (such as banning women from working on fishing boats and on railway construction sites) up until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the list of banned occupations for women made a come-back in the now independent Belarus. In the year 2000, the Council of Ministers approved a directive banning women from 252 occupations which were deemed too physically demanding and their conditions too harmful and/or unsafe. Like the earlier lists, it was supposed to ‘improve women’s health and working conditions.’ By and large, the 252 occupations related to the chemical, mining, leather and heavy industries. In concrete terms, it banned women from becoming – among other things – train drivers, firefighters, blacksmiths, coach drivers on international routes, and drivers of large trucks.
Women are banned from driving trains and trucks and working as blacksmiths or firefighters.
The latest, amended list was ratified in June of this year. Perhaps the most significant and obvious change is that the number of occupations closed to women has been cut by nearly a third, from 252 to 181. This is mostly down to the fact that a lot of restrictions on the employment of women in the mining industry have been lifted, allowing them to do many jobs that do not involve heavy physical labour. Occupations, which no longer exist have also been removed from the list; and changes of terminology have been taken into account.
Public opinion can perhaps best be gauged by comments from experts in various fields. Aleksander Zaitsev, the Chief Technical Inspector for the Belarus Federation of Trade Unions (the largest pro-government trade union association) remarked: ‘there are certain jobs that a woman just shouldn’t do, because she has her children and family to worry about. There are plenty of less demanding occupations out there for women. They should of course be paid properly.’
‘There are certain jobs that a woman just shouldn’t do, because she has her children and family to worry about.’
Nadezhda Znak, a lawyer at the firm ‘YurZnak,’ holds a similar view: ‘there are times when the state needs to step in for the good of women. This may look like discrimination but in reality it is far from that… This list protects both women and employers, who in the future could very well find themselves being sued by women who have suffered workplace-related injuries and illnesses.’
Both these statements reflect the prevailing opinion on the role of women in Belarusian society, which holds that women’s priorities should be family life and the care of their children. As for formal employment, it is taken for granted that women should have jobs that are safer and less taxing than those of men.
It is particularly worrying that a trade union leader and a lawyer (who, given their work might be expected to recognise the blatantly discriminatory nature of the list) ignore – or fail to notice – this and actually defend the idea of ‘special’ treatment for women in the workforce. Sadly, in Belarus the idea of women as objects in need of special care is the rule rather than the exception for large swathes of the population.
The other view
But not everyone in Belarus shares such positive views about the directive. Representatives of feminist organisations and initiatives in particular are critical of the decree. There are a number of reasons for this.
In the first place, they argue that the list is discriminatory by definition, as it only restricts women’s right to choose their occupation, and not men’s.
Secondly, they believe that the list (whether amended or not) only serves to widen the already sizeable divide between men and women on the Belarusian jobs market, so contributing to women’s poverty.
Women make up more than half of the work force in Belarus but make only 74.5% of what men earn.
According to data from the National Statistics Committee, women make up more than half of the work force in Belarus (53.4% in 2009) but make only 74.5% of what men earn. This is due to the fact that women predominantly work in low-paying sectors such as health, education, social work etc.
It would be foolish, of course, to suggest that women are forced to work in such low-paying sectors, as they make these decisions for themselves. However, their decisions are influenced by many different factors, including the very real pressure and/or desire to conform to certain social expectations, which prescribe specific (lower paying) roles for women. These expectations are only reinforced by the list.
Obtaining positions in higher-paying sectors, which are traditionally associated with men would give women the opportunity to increase their standard of living. The list, which denies women access to some of these positions, is thus one of the causes of poverty among women in Belarus today. Moreover, in limiting women’s access to certain high-paying jobs, it is not only the income of working women that is capped but also that of future female retirees, as pensions are calculated on average pay earned over someone’s entire career.
Feminist activists in Belarus have also taken strong issue with the argument put forward by the state, which justifies the list in terms of protecting the female workforce and the country’s (future) mothers from the dangers of heavy industry.
History has shown time and time again that restrictions and regulations relating to heavy and dangerous work are inconsistently adhered to in practice and that neither the Soviet Union nor its now independent republics are positive exceptions to this rule. So why is the state putting its foot down in this instance? And why only when it comes to women?
The chorus of concern for women’s health to justify restrictions in their employment opportunities is an example of ‘benevolent’ sexism, which legitimises discrimination against women. Concealed behind this concern lies the idea of women as fragile and delicate creatures who are unable to make independent choices or take responsibility for themselves, and who therefore require the protection of the state and/or of men. The constant references to motherhood in the political rhetoric are yet another example of benevolent sexism, which sees women only as potential mothers and as objects in need of special care. Such representations are depressingly common in the former Soviet Union and in Belarus in particular.
The health of men is not an object of concern for the state.
Representatives of feminist organisations also argue that the occupations on the list are equally dangerous for men and for women. The health of men, however, is not an object of concern for the state, which seems somewhat odd given the high mortality rate of working-age men (men make up 81.6% of those who do not reach pensionable age) and the large discrepancy between the life expectancy of men and women (67.3 years for men and 77.9 years for women).
The role of Belarusian women
Such skewed attention to and concern about the health of one gender, and blatant disregard for the other is linked to the importance that the Belarusian state attaches to women and their role in securing the nation’s demographic health, and with it the state’s sovereignty. This is not openly spelt out in the directive, but it can be found from time to time in statements by officials.
For example, responding to a question in 2010 regarding the role of women in society, President Lukashenka said: ‘God has bestowed upon women the gift of motherhood; there is no arguing with that. Career or no career, women must be in charge of raising their children. I want our women to have no less than three children each.’
‘I want our women to have no less than three children each.’ (President Lukashenka)
A few years later the president expanded: ‘it is, if you like, a question of national security. If our population size is too small, there’s no point even talking about independence.’
In other words, from the state’s point of view, women are seen as an essential resource for combating the demographic crisis Belarus faces and for ensuring the ‘demographic potential’ of the nation. Although, here too there are certain factors that it fails to take into consideration. For example, the fact that not all women want or are able to have children (for reasons of health, age, economic status and personal preference), and that different women have different reproductive life cycles and periods of sexual activity. Or the important fact that men are also involved in the process of reproduction but that this has not restricted their career choices and opportunities.
Pronouncements such as those by Lukashenka clearly reveal the state’s desire to control and manage the choices and actions of its citizens in a wide range of social spheres. In this case, to manoeuvre women into prioritising their reproductive role over all others and, when it comes to work, to take on jobs that fit traditional notions of female roles and responsibilities.
The fact that the list of prohibited occupations for women in Belarus, in force for the past 14 years, has been revised and shortened should not, as claimed by the government, be regarded as a positive development for the empowerment of women in the workforce. The number of occupations open exclusively to men has indeed been reduced but there is no real change: regulations and procedures remain the same, which effectively rules out meaningful change in the future. The new list should be seen as a mere cosmetic half-measure designed to give only the illusion of addressing the inequalities which pervade the Belarusian labour market and society as a whole, and promoting the fiction of improving the opportunities of women who still find themselves restricted by its sexist regulations.
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