Discrimination Disguised as Labor Protection: #AllJobs4AllWomen in Belarus

Irina Solomatina, head of “Gender Route” project, interviewed Mikola Sharakh, Deputy Chairman of the Free Trade Union of Belarus, about the situation of women workers at “Polotsk-Steklovolokno” glass fiber production company.

– “Polotsk-Steklovolokno” company website reports that women in the workshops of glass fiber production have been working as Continuous Filament Glass Fibre (CFGF) machine operators since at least 1957.

– Yes, that’s true, women worked at the old factory, which is located in the city of Polotsk itself and is not functioning now, while the new production facilities, built in 1985, are based on new technologies and provide for full cycle of glass fiber production and processing. However, since 2009, when the new version of the Labor Code was adopted, new sanitary norms have been introduced. The Ministry of Health has determined the standards for manual lifting of weight for women: not more than 7 kilograms can be lifted and moved constantly throughout the working shift. When alternating with other work, lifting and moving weights up to 10 kg is allowed, but not more that two times per hour.

When I came to work at the factory in 1986, there was an almost equal share of men and women working as CFGF machine operators. There was a vocational school, which trained both young girls and boys to be operators of continuous glass fiber production machines, and both underwent practical training at the factory.

The old equipment used the 3.5-5 kg spools, and they were to be changed about once an hour, so there was no such problem as a violation of the sanitary norms for moving weights. But with the introduction of new equipment, when the spools now weigh almost 10 kg each, theoretically there was a possibility of violation of the sanitary norms. Since the employer is responsible for observing the working conditions, the company administration decided to stop accepting female machine operators for the enterprise. But women operators, who have already worked in the shops, were left in their positions. Some of them are still working, although, strictly speaking, they should not be allowed to work.

– Was it only about observation of sanitary standards?

– The company administration decided to get rid of women workers gradually, not only because of the new sanitary standards, but also because generally it is more complicated to have female employees because they call in sick if their children are sick, they get pregnant and have to leave their jobs in order to take care of the babies. In the past they used to be transferred to the old factory, where the machines used lighter spools, but the working conditions there were even worse: old equipment, problems with ventilation of the shops and poorer standards of labor protection. It was difficult for women to work there, and they asked to be transferred back to the new factory. There were cases when we helped members of our trade union to return to the new factory, where working conditions were better.

In fact, the problem is not so much to do with lifting weights — there were no complaints about lifting weights. The fact is that the work of CFGF machine operator is practically the best paid in the company. Women were worried because they were deprived of these jobs. Women are employed en masse as weavers, for unwinding and twisting, and I would say that it is physically more difficult to work in these positions. Unwinding operation itself is not so difficult, but the workers there have to pick up carts with products and transport them from one end of the shop to the other, but pushing these carts with wheels that barely turn or which have three wheels instead of four, this can be overstrained. Women undermine their health working in these jobs more than if they work as CFGF machine operators, where one only needs to remove the spools from the device and send them to the quality inspection centre. This constitutes the principal work of the operators, it is one of the initial stages of the technological chain, on which all the other stages depend. In addition to that, the operator needs to watch out for tearing, the glass fiber threads are thin and it is easier for women, who have thinner fingers, to do this work. But now the work of the operator is entrusted to men only, and women work at all other stages of the production process.

– How did the company administration decide who to leave on the job and who not?

– The criteria were both objective and subjective. First of all, women of retirement age who have already worked out their term in harmful conditions were removed. But they were not sacked, as there were quite a lot of different vacancies in other workshops. They were transferred to lesser paid positions.

Most likely, there were also some internal recommendations from the company administration to do something some way and not the other. Women operators were not removed in one day, it was a long process. They were offered some other job. If women resisted, they were transferred to other workshops. We have three workshops which produce the same type of products. People could be transferred within the same profession from one shop to the other. One of the shops has better working conditions, another has working conditions which are harder, and the third one has the best conditions of labor protection, better working conditions and workers are transferred there based on cronyism. In general, the procedure for transfer is carried out based on an agreement of the parties and agreements between the administration of workshops. For example, one woman was transferred to workshop 12, and working conditions there are inferior compared to workshop 7, where she used to work before, and the salary at her new workplace was lower. But she was told that if she wanted to work as machine operator, she should be transferred to workshop 12. There were cases when workers were transferred to another workshop temporarily, and later the transfer was fixed as permanent. Some people simply quit and left the work altogether, because it was too difficult for them to work in harder conditions.

– Were there any cases when women fought to remain in their previous workplaces?

– Yes, we had a case when a woman was transferred to the old factory, she worked there for some time and then refused, because different equipment was used there, other skills were needed, production process was arranged differently. She decided to get transferred back to her previous workplace and appealed to the trade union. We managed to get her transferred back to workshop №7. The company administration, including the deputy general director and the general director himself, participated in the negotiations. Everything went well, as the woman herself declared that she did not agree with the state of affairs, and it was her who demanded to be transferred back. It is more difficult when a person complains that everything is bad, but there are no formal appeals either to the bosses or to the trade union. After all, we cannot solve these problems without the participation of a particular person.

– How does a woman learn that she can return if they she was transferred?

– We have a tradition that first you have to try to negotiate and make a deal with administration. People only vaguely imagine what rights they actually have. We have held many seminars, but in general people do not believe that it is possible to achieve results by means of a trade union, although with the establishment of the Free Trade Union, the situation began to change. The company administration is not interested in this kind of educational programs. At the glass fiber factory, salaries are high by the local standards of Polotsk, and people hold on to their jobs, one can understand why.

Is there a difference between the salaries of male and female operators of CFGF machines?

No, they get the same salaries. Here the difference can only be in the weight of manufactured products, but there are no names attached to the production reports, everything goes according to the number, and accounting is only done based on quantitative indicators. The worker’s salary depends on the performance of his or her equipment, the skills they have, how fast and how effective they work.

Neither the trade union nor the workers were able to obtain the data on the salaries of operators in different shops. Indeed, in three different workshops, male and female workers of the same profession were working – CFGF operator, as a rule, is a specialist of 5th category.

Theoretically, the CFGF operators of the 5th category should receive the same salary in different workshops. But we have a piecework bonus payment system, so is it really fair to raise wages simply for having been transferred to the newest equipment and to pay less to those working on old machinery? People are to be paid for their qualification, not for the equipment. Therefore, there was a “war” within the company for working on the new equipment. If you work on the new equipment from the start, you earn more. Those workers, whom administration is least pleased with, are placed at the oldest machines. And one can work there until one decides to quit himself. New machinery mean higher level of quality. Polotsk-Steklovolokno is an export-oriented enterprise. 90% of the products are shipped outside the country – to the CIS countries (about 60% of exports) and Europe (about 30%). The company’s products are also exported to Japan, Australia, China, both Americas.

– In your opinion, what arguments can be used to achieve a review, or even better, abolition of sanitary regulations that lead to violations of the workers’ rights?

Sanitary norms should be recommendatory in nature, that is, a person himself should determine where he can and wants to go to work, whether it is suitable for him or her or not. And if sanitary norms are imperative, then there is no longer labor protection, but discrimination. Freedom of choice of job and profession cannot be abolished for a person, as it would be a violation of civil rights. Therefore, you can make legal appeals about this to the Constitutional Court. But we need female applicants who are ready to go to court and appeal against the refusal of administration to employ them as CFGF operators. At the initial stage, you can contact the trade union for support and protection of your rights, you can appeal against the prohibitive regulations. There is an article [in Labor Code], which deals with “unreasonable refusal of employment”.

Now we are seriously concerned about potential changes in the Labor Code, which were initiated by the government and which imply the incorporation into the Labor Code of the provisions of Decrees No. 5 (“On strengthening the requirements for managers and employees of organizations”) and No. 29 (“On additional measures to improve labor relations, strengthen labor and executive discipline”). According to Decree No. 5, workers can potentially be punished by deprivation of up to 3/4 of their salary. There is also deprivation of bonuses, and at some enterprises this amounts up to half the salary, and there is also deprivation of up to three monthly salaries for violation of labor and executive discipline. These decrees worsen the legal status of workers in the sphere of labor relations and, in general, they worsen the image of Belarus and create obstacles for the country’s integration into the international political and economic space. The situation is close to hopeless. On the one hand, none of the workers, both men and women, want to lose their jobs. On the other hand, the contract system is built in such a way that any worker can lose his or her job at any time. Any conflict with the immediate superior is enough to lose your job. In practice, the foreman becomes the employer, and as soon as a conflict arises with him, he can immediately get rid of the worker. The existing legislation allows to dismiss employees for a single violation of labor, technological and executive discipline. But what is this “executive discipline”? It is not spelled out anywhere. This means that there is more than enough leverage for dismissal of workers available to the bosses, but both female and male workers have no means to protect themselves.

– Are you able to defend the rights of workers for safe working conditions?

– We are currently in a legal battle related to an occupational disease. In 2014, a female worker discovered that she had an occupational disease, which resulted in 30% disability.

The woman turned to the employer for compensation, however, while she was undergoing treatment and rehabilitation, the Medical and economic control service reviewed the status of her illness at the initiative of the company, and an “occupational” illness became a “common” illness. The court confirmed the illegality of this revision, and the status of occupational disease was re-established. The employer began to make supervisory legal complaints against this court ruling and appealed to the Ministry of Health in order not to pay compensation to the employee.

The female worker began to fight back only because she no longer worked at the enterprise. But in general, employees do not demand to recognize their diseases as occupational, although I know several cases of throat cancer at the enterprise. Workers are not being sent to the Medical and economic control service, although the machine operators each year undergo a medical examination and it is the factory therapist who should be the first to do this. No one controls this process.

Moreover, as the lengthy ongoing judicial case in the case of weaver Elena Polovchenya v. “Polotsk-Steklovolokno” demonstrates, neither the Department of State Labor Inspection of the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the Republic of Belarus, nor other departments of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labor take the side of the worker or show their concern about a fair trial.