New East Digital Archive

Hard labour: Russian women are still barred by law from hundreds of jobs. But some are pushing back

An obscure legal article left over from Soviet times bars Russian women from taking on over 400 different jobs — something most employers aren’t even aware of. But some refuse to take this lying down. Welcome to a world of illicit power tools and legal challenges.

15 October 2017

Every couple of days, a new post appears on WomanLabour, a group on the popular Russian social networking site VKontakte. It’s usually a picture of a new tool, a drill, a hammer, recently completed home repairs or a new profile picture featuring two strong and happy women carrying out different handiwork jobs. Nadya and Yulia are a couple of avowed feminists living together with their three children in Moscow. Their profession is illegal, and not only because they receive commissions through VK, or because the company they run isn’t registered. It’s illegal because they are women.

According to Russian law, Nadya and Yulia aren’t allowed to perform most of the tasks their work requires, because in Russia it’s illegal for women to lift weights over 10kg more than twice an hour when they’re at work.

Like many other women in Russia, Nadya and Yulia were vaguely aware of the Labour Code’s infamous Article 253, but never thought it would actually concern them. Though Article 3 of the same code officially protects women from being discriminated against in the workplace, a couple of hundred paragraphs later, a discordant article, a vestige of Soviet times, effectively bars them from no less than 456 professions. The law has been left mostly unchanged from a time when sparing women from hazardous jobs indicated social progress, but also an ominous state interest in their reproductive functions; today it comes across as absurd and obsolete.

The law has been left mostly unchanged from a time when sparing women from hazardous jobs indicated social progress, but also an ominous state interest in their reproductive functions

Despite the law’s long existence, awareness of it is alarmingly uncommon. If women disinterested in these professions react with disbelief when hearing about it for the first time, those who are directly affected by it often ignore the list altogether, presuming it applies only to extremely hazardous jobs. But in addition to mining, welding, drilling, butchering and diving, the ban includes more everyday professions like carpenting, plumbing and driving various vehicles like the metro, buses with more than 14 seats, and lorries transporting more than 2.5 tonnes.

In the case of Nadya and Yulia, their work means constantly juggling what might be officially legal and what wouldn’t be under any circumstances. Both women have always been particularly good at working with their hands, so it came naturally to them to start helping friends with small practical jobs. It started with changing light bulbs and various other small repair jobs before growing to become their passion as well as their profession. As their customer network grew and their popularity increased, they turned their passion into a proper business, but a very particular one. They only work with and for other women, and they help with all sorts of repairs, from changing a socket to laying laminate, assembling furniture and other carpentry.

The choice to target only women as their clientele was not so much a commercial as a social one. “Many women don’t even know how to handle simple tasks like changing a light bulb, simply because they were never taught how to do so,” says Nadya. Learning technical skills doesn’t come naturally when you grow up in gender-separated classes where girls learn how to cook and sew while boys grapple with a hammer and saw.

“We don’t just want to fix things, we want to teach these women how to do this work themselves,” says Nadya, who dreams of one day launching a series of YouTube videos to teach women how to manage everyday jobs and easy repairs. However, working illegally in a banned profession has many punishing consequences. First and foremost, there is a lack of any kind of social security. “We don’t have health insurance, but we do have a first aid kit,” laughs Yulia.

Circumventing the ban is nearly impossible when it comes to public jobs, such as operating public transport. Despite the strict prohibition, job offers scattered throughout the city do not mention the unavailability of this profession to women and the high salary that comes with it keeps attracting many disqualified female applicants.

“We don’t just want to fix things, we want to teach these women how to do this work themselves”

Alina Shorokhova, 32, has always had a passion for cars that grew even stronger when she started working at the machinery department of her local hypermarket. Later, tired of working in retail, she began searching for a new job. The high salaries promised in a job offer for excavator drivers immediately attracted her attention. She successfully completed driving courses and received a licence. At that point the last thing to do was to find a position where she could gain the necessary experience. After countless refusals, eventually her chance arrived. “My sex, which until then had worked against me, finally proved to be an advantage: the workers at this last company were terribly curious to see a woman driving an excavator so they decided to teach me.”

After a brief period of apprenticeship, Alina was eventually offered a position, but it wasn’t long before senior management discovered the legal prohibition against women driving excavators. “It turned out that they had violated the law in giving me the job. Out of panic, my managers tried to persuade me to resign, but we ended up finding another solution.” Satisfied by her performance, the employer found a way to legally hire her, by paying a commission to certify that her workplace was one in which it was “safe for a woman to work.” The general confusion and unawareness surrounding the ban became particularly clear to Alina when, in 2013, she decided to stop working for her company and start accepting commissioned jobs from private contractors.

Excavator driving is only one of the many driving professions included in the list of banned professions. Working on the underground, especially as a metro driver, deserves its own section on the list. Permission for women to perform the job is particularly difficult considering the costly repair works on the metro line that would be required to make women’s inclusion possible, an unnecessary expense that is avoided by exclusively hiring men.

Anna Klevets, a law graduate lacking the professional experience needed to start a career in law, decided to apply for a job as a metro driver instead, pushed by the need to make some fast money. Despite having a background in law, the ban came as a surprise for her, but unlike many other rejected women she decided to fight back. She brought her case to court and filed an official complaint to the UN, but her efforts were in vain.

Being a metro driver remains illegal for women, as it is perceived to be threatening to their reproductive functions. “Strong vibrations, loud noises, poor lighting and a high degree of physical and emotional stress were the arguments for the ban and deemed a valid justification to keep it in place,” explains Anna. The case, however, reinforced her motivation to pursue a career in law, and specialise in labour rights.

Natalia Listyeva, 18 at the time, had a similar experience. The job offer on the metro wagon promised an apprenticeship of 20,000 roubles ($340) and a salary of 60,000 ($1,700) per month in case of employment. Having no other working skills, this seemed like an irresistible opportunity, so she decided to apply. “After the rejection the only other job available for me was in a clothing store, with a salary of 18,000 roubles ($305) per month,” she says.

Money is not the only incentive that drives many women to fight for these occupations, which usually require almost no education and guarantee high salaries: real passion in “men’s professions” is also at the heart of their fights for their rights.

Svetlana Medvedeva’s is perhaps the most famous case and one that reignited the discussion as to whether the law should be considered as a form of protection or discrimination against women. Her dream was to become a sailor, but the fact that she’s a woman would prevent her from pursuing such a career. When she complained to the boss of her company about the discriminatory nature of this law, the response was that “women should not be captains to begin with.” She responded by bringing her case to court. Last month, Medvedeva won her case in a landmark ruling against this kind of discrimination.

Unlike the unsuccessful case of Anna Klevets, Medvedeva managed to make progress toward equal labour rights. In March 2016, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) labelled the law discriminatory and required Russia to revise it. Today, the list includes many hazardous jobs, but inexplicably not all of them. Several of the professions originally banned under the law have become obsolete over time, but the question remains as to when society will include women in the design of their own employment rights.

This article was produced as part of The Calvert Journal’s New Writers Programme.

Text: Francesca Visser

Illustrations: Anastasia Abramova