The Situation of Female Tractor Operators in Contemporary Belarus

24.02.2019
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In contemporary Belarus, the profession of tractor operator/machinist is classified as a job “with harmful and (or) dangerous work conditions banned for women.” In other words, the government of Belarus believes that women should not operate tractors and justifies this restriction with concern about motherhood and women’s health. A tractor operator’s responsibilities include operating tractors, combines, and trucks, repairing these vehicles (operators must make sure that they are in working condition), ploughing and sowing the earth, transporting the harvest, preparing fodder, removing snow, and cleaning up the area.

At the same time, the country supports a unique “cult” of female tractor operators who are heroines of “non-female” labor, which formed in the Soviet years. Now, the press continues to represent agricultural jobs as a “battle for the harvest,” and the state holds “workplace competitions” and continues the Soviet practice of awarding workers for “labor victories” and presenting them with “engraved tractors.” However, in the new economic conditions and given the existing bans on women’s labor, this cult has acquired a misshapen form, which has had a negative impact on the realization of women’s socio-economic rights.

In the summer of 2018, many media outlets in Belarus wrote about the story of Galina Kozhanova, a tractor operator from Buda-Kashalyova District, Gomel Oblast, whose tractor “from the president” was taken from her. Kozhanova received awards from the Belarusian president three times, has licenses for almost all categories of vehicles, and has worked on many types of equipment. At the Dozhinki-2017 regional festival of agricultural workers in Zhytkavichy, she was awarded a certificate and the keys to a Belarus-82.1 tractor engraved with her name.

However, after the best female tractor operator of Gomel Oblast was fired, she was forced to return this award. Pursuant to the requirements for recording material assets, the Belarus-82.1 tractor was transferred to the balance sheet of the Collective Farming Unitary Enterprise Krivsk and assigned an inventory number. Thus, even though there was an inscription certificate to the tractor, it became the farm’s property. When Galina Kozhanova wanted to transfer to a job at another farm, she was not allowed to take her tractor with her.

The only female tractor operator to be gifted a tractor in Soviet years was Hero of Socialist Labor Nadezhda Kunistkaya, who received an MTZ-52 in 1972 from the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic Petr Masherov. She ended her days in a nursing home in Zhdanovichy, where she moved with her tractor, which was her only piece of property. She cleaned snow from the tractor and cultivated a plot of land until the age of 80. After her death, her relatives refused to take the tractor and requested that it be returned to the tractor factory and placed on a pedestal.

The Belarusian president has continued the Soviet tradition of awarding tractors to the best female workers. According to media reports, in 2006 there were 42 female tractors operators who received a tractor with Жанчынам зямли беларускай от Президента [“To Women of the Belarusian Land from the President” – Trans.] inscribed on the hood. However, the tractors were not officially the property of these tractor operators but instead belonged to the farms where they worked.

In speaking about their work in male collectives, female tractor operators frequently complain of biased treatment and a kind of “envy” from their male colleagues regarding their high qualifications. They even noted that their tractors had been damaged to prevent their professional superiority and their victories in workplace competitions.

Even though women responded to the famous Soviet call “Women to your tractors!,” in the late 1930s, they made up only 8 percent of the total number of tractor operators and now number in the single digits. Both then and now, work on a collective farm was not the standard. All the female tractor operators written about in the Belarusian media say that they did not have vacations. Moreover, payment for their “groundbreaking labor” on farms was not even enough to acquire housing. The main source of income for families remains plots, which are to a significant extent in women’s hands.

Even though female tractor operators demonstrate a high level of labor productivity, law enforcement practices and public opinion about “the place of women” in Belarus remain traditional, which leads to an undervaluation of female labor. On top of this, farms where female tractor operators work receive their “presidential gifts” (tractors inscribed with “To Women of the Belarusian Land from the President”) on Mother’s Day, not Labor Day. In this way, the state shifts the focus to the “natural functions” of a woman instead of trying to even out the social consequences of gender stereotypes in an economic crisis and respect women’s personal choices. This practice of giving appears backhanded in the context of Belarus’ existing ban on allowing women to operate tractors.

Both the Belarusian government and the press continue to undervalue the professional contribution of tractor operators, describing them as “women with ‘non-female’ jobs.” However, today every woman must have the right and opportunity to develop their abilities. Revoking the list of “non-female” jobs could weaken the manipulation and moral control of women by both the government and society. Then questions along the lines of “is this work suitable for women” would fall away for people who want to hold “non-female” jobs and for employers and the press.

Irina Solomatina