In the economic stagnation and failed reforms of the post-Soviet transition period, Ukrainian women have faced many obstacles to their full and equal participation in the labor force. Widespread employer discrimination against women in the recruitment process limits women’s access to jobs, including many high-paying and prestigious jobs. Employers in both the public and private sectors regularly specify gender when advertising vacancies and use information they require in interviews regarding family circumstances to deny women employment. Age and appearance requirements also arbitrarily exclude women from jobs for which they are professionally qualified. Employers justify their preferences for male employees on stereotypical assumptions about women’s physical and intellectual capacities and their family responsibilities. As a result, women are increasingly pushed into low-wage service sector or public sector jobs or seek employment, including secondary employment, in the unregulated informal sector. Many women choose to go abroad to seek better economic opportunities, a choice that may leave them vulnerable to being trafficked into the commercial sex industry or other forms of forced labor.
Government officials routinely deny that discrimination against women in the labor force is a problem in Ukraine. However, Human Rights Watch found the Ukrainian government to be complicit in both public and private sector discrimination. Many officials acknowledged that employers frequently prefer to hire men and defended employers’ discriminatory practices over the right of women to equal opportunity in the work force. Although the lack of financial resources was often cited as the primary excuse for the non-enforcement of laws, the Ministry of Labor inspectorates demonstrated a lack of will and insufficient training to investigate discriminatory recruitment practices. In its statistical records, the Ministry of Labor does not include a category for recording complaints, inspections, or violations related specifically to discrimination of any kind. Moreover, the State Employment Service endorses employer discrimination against women by posting vacancy announcements with gender specifications and requesting gender-specific vacancy information from employers.
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Ukraine is obligated to eliminate all forms of discrimination in political, economic, social, and cultural spheres, prevent discriminatory practices in both the public and the private sectors, and provide effective remedies to those who have suffered abuses. In addition, Ukraine has ratified all of the fundamental conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO), including Convention No. 111 Concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation, which provides specifically for the elimination of discrimination at work.
Gender discrimination is prohibited under the Ukrainian constitution and domestic laws. Article 24 of the Ukrainian constitution and article 2(1) of the labor code guarantee freedom from all forms of discrimination, including on the basis of sex. The failure of the Ukrainian government to enforce these laws and commitments puts it in breach of its obligation to prevent discrimination against women.
At the same time,Ukrainian laws prevent women from holding certain positions and performing certain types of work. These restrictions are designed to protect women from hazardous employment conditions. However, many restrictions exceed accepted international norms for the regulation of the employment of women. Furthermore, the protections for women established under Ukrainian law are based on non-objective criteria that conflict with the principle of gender equality. They have the effect of arbitrarily discriminating against women in certain types of work and rendering women less competitive in the labor market. Maternity and child leave protections are also extensive and focus almost exclusively on women as caregivers. Combined with employers’ stereotypical assumptions about women’s inability to manage family and work responsibilities together, these provisions have the unintended effect of making women less competitive candidates in the eyes of potential employers.
Human Rights Watch conducted research on discrimination against Ukrainian women in employment recruitment in April 2003 in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Lviv. We focused on the impact of gender-specific job advertising and discrimination against women during hiring interviews, and also gathered material on discrimination in promotions and salary raises, as well as sexual harassment. We interviewed forty-eight unemployed and employed women and four men to learn about their experiences in the labor market. We also interviewed four employers and private employment agencies to learn about their employment practices. We conducted twenty-two interviews with Ukrainian officials from different departments responsible for ensuring gender equality in the work force, including the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, the National Employment Service, the State Committee on Family and Youth Policy, the Verkhovna Rada [Parliament], the National Ombudsman’s office, regional and local labor inspectorates, and regional and local state employment service centers. We also interviewed eight officials from the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and twenty-seven representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent experts in women’s rights, labor rights, and economics.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Ukrainian authorities and international bodies take measures to end discrimination against women in the labor force in Ukraine. All branches of government should uphold in practice and in law international human rights obligations to guarantee the right to nondiscrimination. Officials at the highest levels of government should publicly condemn discrimination and organize national anti-discrimination training programs for officials at all levels as well as for trade unions and employers. The Verkhovna Rada should take steps to amend legislation to prohibit job advertising based on gender and remove gender restrictions on parental benefits. The Ministry of Labor should conduct ex officio investigations of employers suspected of discrimination. The State Employment Service should refrain from all practices that promote gender-specific recruitment.
In addition, Human Rights Watch recommends that the European Union (E.U.) work with Ukraine to harmonize its legislation and practices with E.U. norms that pertain to nondiscrimination. The International Labor Organization and the Council of Europe should continue to assist the Ukrainian authorities in the drafting and preparation of changes to the Labor Code and the proposed Law on Gender in ways that are consistent with Ukraine’s obligations under international law. Relevant United Nations treaty bodies should scrutinize the Ukrainian government’s compliance with its international obligations relating to gender equality. International financial institutions should recognize the role that discrimination plays in limiting economic opportunities for women and perpetuating poverty, and they should condition support for Ukraine on measurable progress in prohibiting discrimination in the labor force.