. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Women Seek to Improve Labor Laws

For some, March 8th means flowers and chocolate. For others, it is a chance to change legislation.

So, on the eve of International Women's Day, representatives of Russia's blossoming women's movement Tuesday took part in a roundtable discussion at the State Duma on women and labor law.

While Russian women have never received equal pay for equal work, they have suffered considerable setbacks in the work force since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In some cities, according to Duma deputy Lyubov Shvets, women make up more than 80 percent of the unemployed work force, while they represent the sole source of income for nearly half of Russia's 40 million families.

"Women are much quieter when it comes to demanding their rights," said Duma deputy Alevtina Fedulova, adding that if proper working conditions were not guaranteed, "they will refuse to fulfill their ultimate duty -- to give birth."

Zoya Khotkina, the editor of a new book on sexual harassment in the work place, said, "I am pleased that at last we are talking about equal rights for women, and not just benefits."

As a result of this week's round table, Khotkina said, the Duma plans to form a council of experts to develop changes to the current labor laws.

Although point 11 of the Russian Constitution guarantees equal rights to employment for all citizens, a different clause states that "the state's special concern for individuals in need of extra social protection," prohibits women from working in certain spheres.

Among the changes women's groups would like to introduce to the labor law is a tax break for private firms that have a women's work force of 40 percent or more.

"It is a form of affirmative action through the tax system," said Martina Vandenburg, the director of the Moscow-based NIS-US Women's Consortium. "There is this idea that a male worker equals a woman plus benefits."

While the women's movement is lobbying to change the labor law to grant more freedom, they face an uphill battle against officials in the Russian ministries of labor and health, who would like to expand the list of forbidden professions for women.

Indeed, when the labor law comes up for review, Duma deputies will also vote whether or not to approve this new list of "forbidden" jobs for women, among them coal mining and driving a truck.

"Equal rights means equal responsibilities," said Sergei Panin, a lawyer for the Labor Ministry, who fixated on the image of a woman behind an 18-wheeler. "Driving a truck is extremely heavy work, and if a normal woman is behind the wheel, I don't know what will happen to her."

Even though women have been working in these so-called forbidden professions for decades, authorities now claim that their exposure to such harsh working environments could damage their health and, even worse, hinder their ability to reproduce.

"These professions show tremendous harm to women's health," said Nikolai Vaganov, a spokesman for the Health Ministry who supports keeping women out of certain areas of the work force.

"There is no reason to fear the word 'forbidden,'" he said.