Revisions of Professional Bans for Women: An Ill-Conceived Shortening of the List of Banned Professions in Kazakhstan and Red Tape in Russia

In advance of a review of the situation of women in Kazakhstan by CERD and CESCR as part of the Universal Periodic Review process, the Kazakh government has adopted a new version of the listed of professions banned for women, which shortens the list by almost one-fifth and limits itself to 219 professions instead of 287.

From now on, women are permitted to hold jobs in print production and metalwork positions involving forge pressing and high temperatures. Bans were lifted from several branches of the textile and light industries, including the production and processing of cotton, linen, and wool, and felt-making. A number of jobs are now open to women in the food industry; pulp, paper, and carboard production; the stone industry; construction, installation, and renovation; and even in nonferrous metallurgy, geology, and surveying.

Even though these positive trends in reducing the number of bans on female employment must be acknowledged, over 20 areas of employment, including important and essential areas like transportation, remain inaccessible: women cannot become machinists, truck drivers, or tractor operators. All of these professions are in demand in Kazakhstan, where agriculture and cargo shipping are well-developed. In spite of recommendations from international experts to avoid excessively broad interpretations of norms to protect motherhood, women in Kazakhstan still cannot work in a number of common professions. Jobs at heights and underground, jobs involving hot or cold temperatures, jobs in receptacles, containers, closed chambers, and double bottom and between-hull spaces, jobs involving vibration, and jobs on floating cranes and aggregate vessels are banned. Women in Kazakhstan are also not allowed to put out fires, work as divers, or operate dozens of kinds of cargo and transport vehicles.

The existing government bans, however, still do not protect women from the arduous work they must perform in their own households. At the same time, the state also acknowledges that women’s salaries are not even 70 percent of men’s salaries. While jobs in the oil, gas, and mining industries pay the most, women cannot work in these areas under the pretext of concern about their reproductive health. The state makes the decision for women about which spheres they can work in while knowingly limiting their economic opportunities. Can we really speak about freedom to make decisions and choose a path of professional development in these conditions?

In Russia, revisions to the list of banned professions, which were announced long ago, have dragged on for no reason. Lawmakers were impelled to make changes not just to execute a court decision, but also to implement the recommendations of international bodies and a judgment issued by the RF Supreme Court. After this list was subjected to amendments, debate, and expert opinions several times in 2018, a final version of the draft was completed in December 2018, but this draft was not published until February 2019. In other words, we can expect another public debate and expert review while approval of the shortened list of banned professions will again be postponed: now the new list is expected to enter into force only on January 1, 2020, and not six months from its publication date, as previously planned.

The list’s structure has been altered several times in various drafts, and, unfortunately, the current version does not divide professions by sphere and contains only the names of more general types of activities without any indication of specific professions and spheres. This complicates not just the actual counting of the number of banned specializations, but also their definition by the employer, including jobs involving vibration and chemical agents.

A positive result of the reform is that the bans will only apply to women aged 18 to 49. A large part of the banned professions relate to manual labor, while production is becoming more widely automated. After public debates including participants from several large organizations, dozens of previously banned jobs were excluded from the list, including the specializations of several of the heroines of the #All jobs for all women campaign. Although these women themselves consider the bans discriminatory in principle, they are all anticipating the new version, which will open their chosen professions to them, even though they have managed to circumvent the bans and are already working in these jobs.

It is interesting to note that Russia and Kazakhstan view jobs that are “harmful to a woman’s reproductive function” differently. For example, felting and wool production, production of pulp, paper, cardboard, and products made from them, and the pouring of stone foundry products are allowed in Kazakhstan but banned in Russia if they are performed manually. At the same time, specializations in various spheres of transportation (maritime, river, railway, cargo shipping, dozens of specializations for operators and assistants) are open to Russian women but banned for Kazakh women. Medical grounds for the harmfulness of various professions are raising more and more questions, particularly as bans on several specializations are being lifted in individual countries. To a certain degree, the most progressive Russian list could borrow from Kazakhstan’s positive experience and remove some jobs that are deemed safe there. At the same time, some of the bans may lose their relevance over the three years it takes to debate and adopt a law. This means that the optimal solution to replace undue loss of time and resources would be to cancel the list of banned professions entirely, as required by contemporary international human rights standards.