Amid protests in Russia and single EU countries (respectively Poland) against the abortion ban, Julia Ostrovskaya, Deputy Director at the Centre for Social and Labour Rights (Moscow, Russia), takes a broader look at the protection of women at work in Russia:

In the current socioeconomic situation, both parents have to work in order to maintain a decent standard of living in a majority of Russian households with dependent children. For a majority of Russian parents, the question is no longer about choosing between family and work or career but rather how to succeed in combining these options harmoniously. Consequently, in the field of social policies, individual inquiries referring to the “work/family balance” are increasingly formulated. Working women make up a significant part of the workforce: Although the number of households, in which women are the only breadwinners, remains high, it is quite revealing for the state and society as a whole that working women are not only doing it for their families. Starting with the 20th century up to modern times in Russia, women’s tendency to combine both their role of an active employee and mother keeps growing.
The difficulty of matching paid work with watching over the family and children affects women more than men, as women are still largely involved in the care of children, sick and elderly relatives. Women, and especially working women and mothers, tend to be the first victims of violations of labour rights and discrimination, or to fall in situation where it is impossible for them to fulfil their social and labour rights. Ensuring equal opportunities for women employees can only be achieved through an effective implementation of mechanisms safeguarding the work/family balance. Current legislation includes provisions on different levels of reinforcement of gender equality, non-discrimination, as well as guarantees for employees with family responsibilities. However, in practice women face problems, which does not allow them to combine their family and career. In addition, a number of guarantees for employees with children are provided exclusively for mothers, and not to fathers, at a time where the status of parent employees needs to be equalised and where guarantees to fulfil family responsibilities provided to male employees need to be the same as the one provided to female employees.
In conciliating family and work, the following predominant groups of issues still need to be considered – existence of discriminatory practices and lack of effective mechanisms for protection against discrimination at the national level; imperfection of the existing system of benefits assignation and payment under the compulsory maternity social insurance system for maternity; lack of efficient measures and low infrastructures in providing public assistance services within the children care.
The most wide-spread violations of employees’ rights, which represent a large part of all violations, were related to issues of allowance payment to mothers with children (assignment of allowances, time frame of their payment, and others), unlawful (discriminatory) layoffs of working mothers in connection with their pregnancy or having children. While violations related to payment indicates employers’ unwillingness to take into account the special social status of women employees with children, an illegal dismissal suggests a total disregard for legislative norms and full violations of women employees’ rights[1].
The Constitution of the Russian Federation establishes the principle of equal rights and equal opportunities for women and men[2] – among basic principles of legal regulation of labour relations laid down in the Labour Code of the Russian Federation, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace[3]. In addition, article 3 of the Labour Code stipulates that every person should have equal opportunity in executing their labour rights. The Labour Code establishes several legal norms: It prohibits an unjustified refusal to sign an employment contract; any sort of direct or indirect restriction of rights or the establishment of direct or indirect advantages upon signing of the contract of employment based on gender, or any other circumstances unrelated to employees’ qualifications; It prohibits the refusal to sign a contract of employment on the grounds of pregnancy or having children[4] and the dismissal of pregnant women by the employer[5], etc. Despite the existence of these legal provisions, discriminatory practices in the labour field are widespread, and women face great difficulties while executing their rights against discriminatory practices. Such difficulties mainly occur due to the fact that mechanisms of protection against discrimination are relatively new to Russia: Discrimination cases are mainly handled by judicial jurisdiction, whereas existing legal regulation require special knowledge to be used in specific labour disputes, thus significantly reducing the possibility of employees subjected to discrimination to defend their rights. In addition, the definition of discrimination contained in the Russian legislation does not fully reveal the essence of the issue, nor does it address the concepts of direct and indirect discrimination. When proceeding cases of discrimination in court, the definition of the legal circumstances, under which an act of discrimination occurs, poses a problem, and there are no special procedural rules for the collection and submission of evidence to the judge. Furthermore, there is no clear view on the legal consequences that entails a finding of discrimination. In order to effectively address the issues mentioned above, measures aimed at changing the existing law enforcement practices and separate legislation should be taken.
The payments of maternity allowance are also one of the most acute problems faced by women in their workplace. These difficulties are associated with the existing system of allowance payments to parents, usually mothers, which should be paid by the Social Insurance Fund, but that is in fact paid by employers from their own funds. This amount is then counted as insurance contribution to the Social Insurance Fund. Such a system puts employees at the mercy of the employer, in case the latter refuses or is unable for different reasons to make the appropriate payments. Moreover, such a system contributes to the employers’ vision of the employment of women as an additional burden. The transition to a system of direct payments from the Social Insurance Fund will enable women to avoid issues in obtaining their allowances and conflicts with their employers. Currently, a transition towards that system was successfully implemented in 20 regions of the Russian Federation[6]. This reform marks a clear progress in the social security system. However, a full transition to direct payments from the Social Insurance Fund and exclusion of employers from the process of allowance payment is still required.
In addition, it is important to provide favourable circumstances in order to conciliate family and work within childcare institutions. In the past few years, many parents have been facing a problem of finding a place for their children in pre-school institutions. It is a serious obstacle to women to return to work after giving a birth to a child. The problem is especially acute for single mothers, who do not have additional sources of income, as the national allowance for childcare is paid until the child reaches the age of one and a half years. If the family does not match the criteria for additional social benefit assistance, no other public financial support is offered to families with children aged between one and a half and three years.
It seems that the reduction of the severity of these problems by means of legislative regulation is possible by finding an acceptable balance of norms reinforcing the equality of rights and the rules aimed at ensuring equal opportunities and providing effective protection against discrimination as well as through the development of a system of public and private services for childcare and other support mechanisms for parents.

[1] Isupova O.G., Belyanin A.V., Ostrovskaya Yu.E. What are Your Complaints, Mom?  // Demoscope Weekly. 2015, No. 659-660
[2]  Constitution of the Russian Federation, Article 19, Item 3 (adopted by the popular vote on 12 December 1993) (including modifications made to the Law on Amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation No. 6-FKZ from 30 December 2008, No. 7-FKZ from 30 December 2008, No. 2-FKZ from 5 February 2014, No. 11-FKZ from 21 July 2014)
[3] Article 2 of the Labour Code of the Russian Federation No. 197-FZ from 30 December 2001
[4] Article 64 of the Labour Code of the Russian Federation
[5] Article 261 of the Labour Code of the Russian Federation (liquidation or cease of activities of an individual entrepreneur excluded)
[6] See the Act of the Government of the Russian Federation No. 294 from 21 April 2011 (read with the Act of the Government of the Russian Federation No. 1389 from 19 December 2015)