Ukraine’s Health Ministry opens up previously banned 450 professions for women

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Up till now, Ukrainian women were prohibited from working as train drivers. Photo: hromadskeradio.org  

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The Ukrainian Health Ministry has abolished its order #256 banning women from being employed in 450 professions which were considered damaging to women’s health, Ukrainian MP Iryna Suslova wrote on her fb page. Suslova was one of the politicians engaged in lobbying for the abolition of the document, which created discriminatory conditions for women’s employment opportunities. According to her,

“Basically, it [the order] took away their freedom of choice and placed them in unequal conditions related to men. The abilition of the order must become the first step on the path of non-discrimination of women in labor relations. Next comes creating safe working conditions for all people, regardless of gender, combating gender segregation during employment and eliminating sexism at work.”

Earlier, Suslova said that another goal for women’s equality is abolishing order #241, which restricts the maximum weight women can lift in the workplace to 7-10 kg, closing the doors to many professions.

The list of professions banned for women goes back to Soviet times and restricts professions which were considered to be damaging to reproductive health. It prohibits from employing women in gas welding, as carpenters, operators of excavators, lumberjacks, train drivers, motorists on ships, long-haul bus or lorry drivers, divers, firefighters, make parts for copper wind instruments etc.

From Soviet times

Similar prohibitions are enacted in many other former Soviet countries (Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, countries of Central Asia). In Russia, where the list includes also over 450 professions, the human rights center Memorial spearheaded a campaign called “All jobs for all women,” the goal of which was to cancel lists of types of jobs and professions banned to women in all Eastern European and Central Asian countries.

In Ukraine, the ban conflicted with the existing national leglisation on non-discrimination. Moreover, some of the prohibitions were contradictory and were not observed in practice. For instance, legally women were allowed to drive transport vehicles carrying under 14 passengers – why not 15 or 16? In practice, women in Ukraine do drive buses and trams, but not metro trains. During round tables, metro representatives defended the anti-metro rule by listing presumable negative effects of noice and vibrations on women’s reproductive health; however, the same noise and vibrations affect the many women working on lower-paid positions in the metro. Yet another rule, which restricted women from working from 22:00 to 6:00, goes back to 1919, when women and men were prohibited from staying together during the night. It, too, is not enforced in practice, as any customer of a 24-hour supermarket in Ukraine may observe.

Most countries of the world don’t have labor restrictions for women, which is explained by international human rights treaties: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. All of them don’t recommend banning women or men from working in certain professions. In its “Equal treatment directive” from 2006, the EU implements the principle of equal treatment between men and women in EU labour law, which specifices that in private and public work relations “no direct or indirect discrimination on grounds of sex in the public or private sectors, including public bodies,” is allowed, “whatever the branch of activity and at all levels of the professional hierarchy.”

According to Memorial’s Stefaniya Kulaeva, who on 8 March 2017 held a workshop for Eastern Partnership states – Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine – on implementing EU anti-discrimination norms, only Georgia was able to change the existing practice by amending not the lists but the Labor Code, which prohibited the professions only for pregnant or nursing women. Now the majority of Georgian women are able to work in previously banned professions. Ukraine is the next country to change the existing practice of professions banned for women, having already given women the right to serve in combat positions in June 2016.

Not unanimous

A campaign to abolish the gender-based labor prohibitions unraveled in the summer of 2017. Not all Ukrainian experts agreed with abolishing the restrictions. In June 2017, the Ministry of Health and the National Academy of Medical Sciences of Ukraine held a meeting called “Labor hygene and professional illnesses,” where the present experts released a Memorandum stating that the practice of restricting women’s work in specific areas of work was not discriminatory, that completely removing restrictions on women’s labor in hazardous conditions “will lead to a significant increase among them of the risks of work-related violations of general and reproductive health, an increase in professional diseases that will negatively affect the demographic situation, population health, and the gene pool of the nation of Ukraine” and instead of abolishing the list, called to revise it. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Institute of Labor had even recommended to expand the list of restricted professions.

However, human rights experts and sociologists actors stress that the restrictions are discriminatory. Iryna Virtosu, the editor-in-chief of the Human Rights Information Center portal, explained that women are already employed in the prohibited professions, but don’t receive the social benefits they should, as officially they are employed in other, less strenous positions. Sociologist Tamara Martsenyuk stresses that prohibiting specific professions for women based on potential harm to their reproductive health leads to financial inequality between women and men who work in the same segment of the market and sends the signal that women are only valued as mothers, not workers. As well, Martsenyuk says that men’s reproductive health is not given enough attention, creating the impression that men are impenetrable creatures called to earn money.

“The situation when care for women is expressed by a number of prohibitions, shows women citizens as dependent and dull creatures who will harm themselves if they are not taken care of. Taking profits into account, the direct consequence of such a distribution a labor market with areas of activity that are accessible only to men, which start to be better paid for.”

If many of the prohibitions in the Ukrainian list of banned professions were indeed hard to explain, that doesn’t mean that working conditions have no impact on women’s reproductive health at all. The meta-review of occupational risk factors for reproductive health of women published in Occupational Medicine in 2006 states that, apart of well-known negative effects of chemicals and physical workloads on pregnant women, women’s fertility and ability to carry the pregnancy to term is influenced by exposure to lead, mercury, nickel, and manganese, solvents, disinfectants, anaesthetic gases, and other pharmaceutic drugs, heavy workloads, irregular work hours, working during the night or in shifts, and work stress. However, the study says, the research is often inconclusive due to methodological restraints, and advises more research be done on the matter.

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