Why should Belarusian women operate trains and mine coal? Why is the "black list" of women's professions damaging both workers and the state? The ZAUTRA.BY has put these questions to Katerina Shmatina, an analyst of the BISS (Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies) and a Council Member of the Belarusian Organization of Working Women, and Andrei Strizhak, a rights defender and a Council Member of the REP Trade Union.
The Belarusian state does not allow women to operate trains, drive trucks used in construction, collect fruits at heights over 1.3 meters, extinguish fires, eliminate accidents and mine coal. Authorities explain these restrictions by the care about women's health. The Belarusian Ministry of Labour and Social Protection is about to revise the list of professions prohibited for women, which now includes 181 occupations. Alexander Rumak, a Deputy Minister, has told the Euroradio that the list will be abridged based on changes related to the technology progress and appearance of new personal protection and safety means. However, a complete abolition of the above list is out of question.
It is not excluded that they decided to revise the list because of the upcoming report to the UN Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (UN CEDAW), since the Committee had repeatedly pointed out to Belarus the discriminatory nature of the list and that the legislator should review it, leaving only those occupations that are essential for maternity protection.
"Probably, our legislator is guided by the trends in neighbouring countries: in Ukraine, the list was completely cancelled in 2017; now, it's essentially reduced in Russia," says Katerina Shmatina, a BISS analyst.
The reduction of the list of professions forbidden for women is a confident step towards equality, experts believe. But it does not solve the important problems in the labour market.
Accepted norms are no longer relevant
A list restricting women's access to certain professions appeared in the Soviet legislation in the 1930s, when norms were introduced prohibiting women from working at night and at hard works.
"Possibly in the 1930s, these norms were progressive and needed, but now they are contrary to the present time and reality," Ms Shmatina believes.
Since then, the technological progress has made many professions accessible to everyone: often, operating equipment means just pressing the right buttons.
"However, there are still non-prohibited jobs, where women have to lift weights, and this is not regulated in any way: for example, a woman cook, who has to handle heavy pots, or janitors, working in cold weather. Besides, the occupations banned for women are often highly paid ones," the BISS analyst has added.
Andrei Strizhak, a rights defender and a council member of the REP Trade Union, is also convinced that the list of professions prohibited for women is outdated long ago. Moreover, in the conditions of unemployment, liberalization of the list will open up chances for the women, who cannot find proper jobs to their specialities.
Authorities discriminate women and forget about men's health, don't they?
In the above list, experts see contradictions and even discrimination. Firstly, the state treats women primarily as mothers, by "taking care" of their reproductive health. However, it makes no distinction among women, because some of them are not planning to have children.
"It may seem that women don't want to manage 'men's' professions, but this is not true: there are women who want to be, for example, long-distance truck drivers," said Katerina Shmatina. According to her story, there were cases when the law didn't allow women to get jobs in domestic companies, and they had to go working abroad.
"Non-mechanized labour and work in hazardous conditions can cause great harm to female body. But as a rights defender, I may ask: if women can't work under such conditions, then why can men?" Andrei Strizhak has asked.
In order to improve, or at least not to worsen the demographic situation, it is important to take care of women's reproductive rights and health, but also not to ignore those of men, creating more favourable working conditions, the experts told the ZAUTRA.BY (Your Country's Tomorrow).
Why is the "black list" bad?
In the opinion of Ms Shmatina, the list of banned women's professions is bad because it is paternalistic, that is, the state decides for a woman what she can and cannot do, while a man has the right to choose whether to take a hard and hazardous work or not.
"The legislative ban on certain activities is an excessive restriction. It turns out that the state says that a person is not able to independently make a decision and understand what harm this or that work can inflict to his/her health. But in an informed society, each person can independently assess the risks that this or that job carries," Andrei Strizhak has added.
In Europe, no one is surprised at seeing a woman driving a heavy truck, a large intercity bus, or engaged in some other profession, considered only male one in Belarus.
But Belarusian realities complicate the situation a bit, as workers in some professions, including those on the black list, are forced to work in rather harsh and even dangerous conditions.
The REP activist believes that the conditions in which many people have to work in this country often fail to meet the norms and requirements prescribed by the law.
"It's impossible to achieve any improvement of the situation with workers' rights and conditions in which they work with a stroke of a pen. There's a huge amount of work for human rights defenders in order to ensure that the conditions at each particular workplace are decent so that both a man and a woman could come to work, and perform it without losing one's health, and get a decent pay," the rights defender has added.
The provisions that expand the capabilities of both workers and employers make the labour market freer, and simplify people's transfer from one sector to another, says Andrei Strizhak. This is especially important today, when an employee no longer chooses a profession for life, but during his/her career changes several companies and branches. Without equating the rights of workers of any gender and age, it is impossible talking about improving conditions in the domestic labour market.