Curtailing of the Russian List of Professional Bans for Women: Legal Aspects

In March 2018, the RF Ministry of Labor presented a draft of a new “List of Harmful and Dangerous Workplace Factors and Jobs Restricted for Women.” During the public discussion, the first version of the amended list was criticized by women wishing to hold or already holding banned jobs, commercial companies, unions, and experts in labor law and health care. The current version of this document was prepared with account for this criticism.

The main purpose of the amendments to the existing regulation was to remove professions that are not applicable in today’s world. Another amendments are more ambiguous, not just from the standpoint of expanding women’s access to jobs and fighting discrimination, but also from the standpoint of creating explicit norms and rules.

Unlike the previous list of banned jobs in thirty-eight sectors, the new list consists of three sections: workplaces impacted by chemical factors, workplaces impacted by physical factors, and harmful and dangerous jobs. Only one section lists over 20 specific jobs, while the other sections contain a list of 152 chemical substances that may harm a woman’s reproductive health when permissible levels are exceeded and a list of restrictions regarding the impact of vibrations, radiation, and cooling or warming microclimates.

After the amendments are adopted, women will be able to hold dozens of jobs that were previously closed to them. These include jobs on all types of fleets: engine officers corps (mechanics, electromechanics, etc.) and engine crew (machinists, motorists, electricians, all types of turners and metalworkers, etc.), deck crew positions (boatswain, longshoreman, senior longshoreman), crane driver (crane operator) on a crane vessel and crane driver (operator) assistant, crane driver (crane operator) at sea, and members of a crane vessel engine crew; also accessible are crane operator jobs loading and unloading cargo in sea and river ports, drivers of intra-port transport, and workers operating machines and continuous action mechanisms to process cargo. Women will be able to take jobs in a number of railway specializations (including machinists and machinist assistants, yardmasters, cargo train conductors, and brakemen), agricultural tractor operators, and drivers of trucks and intercity busses with over 14 seats. Bans on women working as painters and carpenters (with the exception of jobs in cisterns and other hard-to-reach areas) have been partially lifted. A number of specializations for construction jobs and several metal worker jobs (mechanics, fitters, ship repair mechanics) will be open to women. Direct restrictions on work at heights in several specializations are no longer relevant (for example, electrical engineering, operation and maintenance of radio and communications equipment on high structures, installation, repair and maintenance of overhead contact systems and overhead power lines at a height of over 10 meters). More than 10 different jobs in these spheres, such as jobs in felt-making, leather-making, the tanning industry, and the production of leather shoes, are still banned, but women can hold non-manual jobs in some areas of the textile industry. Women can also be hired for previously banned mechanized jobs.

The new list allows women to hold several jobs in a number of spheres involving exposure to chemical substances above established norms with the use of personal protective equipment. These include jobs in pharmaceutical production, medical and scientific research institutes, test labs, domestic services, temporary jobs in redecorating, painting, and finishing work, exterior work, and work in production facilities equipped with effective supply and exhaust ventilation.

In spite of this positive step to curtail the list of banned profession and move towards achieving equality between women and men in the labor sphere, the new regulations raise a number of questions for experts and potential employers. For instance, many jobs involve exposure to chemical substances that sometimes exceed acceptable limits; moreover, in many cases one of the substances listed can be used in several different specializations. The lack of ceiling limits approved by the RF chief public health physician for all the chemical substances listed in the amended list, as well as specific specializations, could potentially lead to an ambiguous interpretation of bans depending on the preferences of employers and inspection authorities.

Jobs involving exposure to cooling or warming microclimates continue to be banned. While comfortable working conditions can be created in the first case (below 13-20 ºC), existing standards unfortunately do not provide for this in a warming climate (above 21-25 ºC). Along with a ban on over a dozen furnace operator jobs, a permissive restriction is in place for several types of jobs at food service companies; however, these jobs are not listed anywhere, which may lead to differing interpretations and practical applications.

In its opinion on the draft, the Ministry of Economic Development pointed out provisions that introduce an excess of obligations, bans, and restrictions on female workers and on employers and that result in unjustified expenses for all participants in the labor process. Difficulties determining the level of harm and danger of various factors may also arise during the performance of odd jobs that were not taken into account during a special evaluation of labor conditions.

The new list retains the ban on manually lifting and moving objects heavier than the established norms. Women in some positions can circumvent this ban at the discretion of employers, who are able to introduce new technologies or avoid overlapping positions that frequently result in a broader application of the bans.

Employers themselves have submitted their comments on the draft of the list of banned professions. For example, Severstal Public Joint Stock Company announced that, taking the new norms defining harmful factors instead of professions into account, “2,892 women held jobs with harmful and (or) dangerous working conditions” in 2017. Specifically, under the new act “637 women work in the harmful class relating to vibration. Because of this, the company must immediately perform several tasks: find men for the positions that women cannot hold and install the previously hired women in new positions. Both options are fraught with losses for the company, which is why its representatives proposed “allowing the use of women’s labor, provided that measures are developed to improve and enhance working conditions.”

While the draft of the amended list stipulates an age restriction of 49 on the bans, neither the draft or other acts contain a definition of “a woman’s reproductive age” or “reproductive health,” which frequently results in senseless bans for women who are not able to have children for physiological reasons.

Finally, it is impossible to completely agree with the statement of RF Minister of Labor Maksim Topilin, who believes that this new list of banned professions will guarantee fair working conditions for women: after all, being deprived of the freedom to find one’s own professional fulfillment can hardly be called equality when it comes with a lack of concern about the health of all citizens regardless of gender. Nevertheless, when the amended list enters into force, it will undoubtedly open up job opportunities for women, and some heroines of the #AllJobsforAllWomen campaign will officially be able to find employment in their chosen professions.