Interview: Julia Ostrovskaya (Center for Social and Labour Rights) on discrimination against women in the workplace

Julia Ostrovskaya, Program Director, Center for Social and Labor Rights Programme talks about discrimination against women in the labour sphere, the important role of trade unions and employers in combating gender-based violence in the workplace.

How do you feel about the fact that hundreds of professions in Russia still remain prohibited for women following the entry into force of the new list in 2021?

For a long time Russia had one of the longest lists of professions prohibited for women in the world. Its significant reduction has been an important and necessary step towards eliminating gender discrimination in social and labor spheres. However, quite a few professional occupations continue to be out of reach for women. Such legal regulations fix the difference in the legal statuses of men and women in labor sphere and maintain an approach based on stereotypes concerning the role of women and men in society. Therefore, it is not possible to call this an optimal solution. This in fact manifests the care for women only in their reproductive function, without taking into account their individual family and career strategies, which they choose for themselves.

Many of the professions, which are currently prohibited for women, are equally harmful to both male and female health, while the right to work in these jobs is restricted only for women. At the same time, some of these occupations could be made safer for all workers, both male and female. It is necessary to make an effort in this direction, using the possibilities provided by automation and robotization.

Let’s talk about women, who work in the spheres, which are considered typically “non-female”. Is it harder to deal with sexual harassment there and, if so, why? How could women be supported in these areas?

It is believed that women, who work in predominantly male groups and “male spheres”, are at greater risk of being harassed. Understanding these increased risks, the organizations operating in these fields need to pay special attention to women’s safety from physical and psychological violence. It is believed that preventive measures, such as informing and conducting training for employees and management about non-discrimination, violence and harassment prove to be quite effective. Special positions of commissioners are often created in organizations operating in these spheres, which female workers could contact if such problems arise. It is important that the female workers understand that, if necessary, confidentiality will be fully respected, and the necessary investigation undertaken by authorized persons will take place, while safe conditions will be provided for the victims.

How important is the problem of harassment, in your opinion? Do women often experience harassment in the workplace?

International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) estimates that globally an average of 40–50% of female workers face harassment. Moreover, according to the World Bank estimates, about 500 million women of working age live in countries, where there is no legal protection from harassment and harassment at work. In 59 countries, women are not legally protected from sexual harassment in the workplace. Russia is one of these countries. We still don’t have effective mechanisms for legal protection against harassment and sexual harassment at work.

Outdated ideas concerning gender roles are still strong in the Russian society, men still have more power than women in society and at work. Sexual harassment at work is an inappropriate and unacceptable expression of such stereotyped social roles of men and women. Therefore, in the vast majority of cases it is women, who become victims of sexual harassment.

In Russia there are no statistics reflecting the real situation of harassment in the labor sphere. At the same time, the results of case studies in recent years, which covered various industries, the restaurant business, journalism and even public service, indicated the widespread prevalence of such practices.

What needs to be done to ensure that the ILO Convention against violence and harassment in the workplace is effective? Are there any specific Russian features of this problem and its specific Russian definition?

This Convention was adopted less than a year ago and will enter into force 12 months after its ratification by two ILO member states. The first of these countries was Uruguay. Given the high level of international support for this international standard, the Convention can be expected to enter into force in 2021. This Convention will be binding only for those countries that ratify it.

The Convention will work more efficiently if Russia ratifies it. In this case, its provisions are to be implemented within national legislation and then applied in practice. It will also entail the need to regularly inform the ILO of the implementation of the Convention and this will provide an opportunity to receive technical assistance from the organization.

But even before ratification, the Convention will be important because, in accordance with the ILO Constitution, parties that have not ratified the Convention must report to the Director-General of the International Labor Office on the provisions of national legislation and the practice regarding issues addressed in the Convention, as well as report on the difficulties, which impede or delay its ratification.

Today the specific Russian situation is perhaps that, unlike in many countries, for example, majority of the European countries, the regulation of issues related to protection against gender-based violence and harassment is not sufficiently developed, while mechanisms for protection against discrimination are almost not developed at all. Gender-based violence, including harassment, is not addressed at the national level as a form of discrimination.

What can a trade union do in order to reduce the number of cases of harassment in the workplace?

Trade unions can be very effective, because unlike other organizations, it is them who have the specific tools to solve such problems at different levels, including particular companies and enterprises.

A massive trade union campaign is now underway to ratify Convention No. 190, and the Russian trade unions planning to take part in it.

At the level of particular enterprises and organizations, trade unions may take the initiative to enforce anti-discrimination provisions and provisions on zero tolerance for harassment and sexual harassment in global framework agreements (between multinational corporations and global trade union associations) or in collective agreements that may be concluded between the employees and the employers at the level of a particular organization, branch, representative office, etc. Unlike voluntary policies that employers adopt on their own initiative, agreements with trade unions are bilateral documents, and the unions monitor their implementation.

In addition, trade unions can provide legal and other assistance to victims of violence and harassment, and educate the workers, employers and trade union members.

What measures would you suggest in order to reduce the cases of harassment at work?

Of decisive importance would be the development of effective legislation aimed at protecting victims and ensuring safe working conditions on the basis of international law and the experience of foreign countries. Among the necessary changes are the following: to introduce a legislative prohibition of harassment; to adopt a comprehensive strategy and to implement measures to prevent and eliminate violence and harassment; to improve the law enforcement; to provide effective means of checking and investigating cases of violence and harassment, including participation of the labor inspectorate and other competent authorities; to create educational materials for judges on issues of protection against discrimination, including harassment; to provide victims with access to legal remedies and support, etc.

In the absence of effective legislative regulation, the role of employers and trade unions increases. It is important that employers take the necessary measures to prevent situations of sexual harassment at their enterprises, develop appropriate local acts (policies or codes), implement feedback mechanisms so that employees and their representatives can contact the employer in cases of violence or harassment, inform employees about the existence of such procedures and conduct investigations in the event of complaints.