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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Law Bans Women From Heavy Work

Chivalry may be dead, but some believe it can be legislated.

According to a change in the Labor Code that went into effect in July, women between the ages of 15 and 49 are forbidden from working in jobs that are considered harmful to their health and -- even more importantly -- to their reproductive functions.

The list of forbidden professions was compiled by the ministries of labor and social welfare in the interests of protecting Russian women from the evils they may voluntarily inflict on themselves by seeking employment as builders, crane operators, or tunnel workers -- just a few of the 400 off-limit professions.

Yelena Yershova, coordinator of the Russian Consortium of Women's Non-Governmental Organizations, objects strongly to the restrictions. "A woman has the right to choose for herself," said Yershova. "How can you build anything positive on the basis of a ban?"

The list of forbidden professions is not new. According to a Ministry of Labor official, it has existed since 1982. But restricting women in the workforce has been an on-again, off-again policy dating back to the 1920s, when the Soviet government first outlawed the "weaker sex" from working night shifts. Later in the decade they reversed the law because they needed more laborers.

Aside from specific areas of military service, there are currently no similar laws restricting women from employment in most Western countries.

However, similar attempts were made to drive women out of the workforce in the backdrop of Russia's low birth rates and the rising rates of birth defects and complications during pregnancy and delivery.

Yershova accepted that these jobs may be bad for women's health, but she says they have little alternative. "Women don't choose these jobs because they love them, but because they come with certain benefits, such as early retirement," she said.

Yershova said the law was particularly unjust for women who had been working for years in proscribed jobs and who will now be forced to quit. "They have already ruined their health and they want what is coming to them.

"What do they have to look forward to if they lose their jobs?" she added. "Lower-paid work or unemployment. This is just another attempt to keep women out of high-paying jobs."

Not all women's groups oppose the law. Some feel women should be restricted from hard labor and protected by a tighter net of welfare programs.

But the reaction from women's labor collectives was much more definitive. At the huge Uralmash factory in Yekaterinburg, women crane operators and tunnel workers were so worried about losing their jobs that they sent a representative to Moscow to lobby against the bill.

Legislators eventually softened the blow by introducing a transitional period. Although the law went into effect July 1, women who are already working will not actually be kicked out of their jobs until the year 2000. But effective immediately, employers are not allowed to hire women for forbidden positions.

Zoya Khotkina of the Moscow Center for Gender Studies estimates that a half-million women currently work in jobs that are considered harmful, and countless more are on the night shift. Many young mothers prefer to work nights so they can be at home with their children during the day, Khotkina said.

"It is all hypocrisy," said Khotkina, doubting that the government will be able to fully implement the law. "They will never find men to fill these jobs."

That is why Olga, a single mother of four, decided to work the midnight to 6 a.m. shift in the Moscow metro.

"Sure the work is difficult," said Olga, who did not want to give her last name because she is worried about losing her job. "But after 10 years I can take early retirement."

"It was my choice to do this, no one forced me," said Olga, who makes 750,000 rubles ($150) a month. "This law is all wrong. Why do women do what they do? So they can make things easier for their children."