By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — As set forward recently by labour minister Gennady Melikyan, the Russian government's "solution" to unemployment is a familiar line from the West — "Women back into the home!"
More than 70% of Russia's 600,000 officially unemployed workers are women. But addressing a press conference on February 10, Melikyan said he saw no need for special programs to help women return to the work force.
"Why should we try to find jobs for women when men are idle and on unemployment benefits?", Melikyan was quoted as saying. "Let men work and women take care of the homes and their children."
"I don't want women to be offended, but I seriously don't think women should work while men are doing nothing", the minister stated. "Russia is the only country with so many working women."
A few years back, women made up 51% of the Russian work force. But government cutbacks, aimed largely at middle-level administrative staff, have hit disproportionately at women employees.
The government's drive to turn women back into housekeepers and baby-minders has been reflected in several drafts of a new law on the family under consideration by the Supreme Soviet. The first draft would potentially have nullified women's right to abortion, and banned women with children under 14 from working more than 35 hours a week.
Following protests from women's and human rights groups, the most controversial clauses were dropped. The current draft does away with the obligation of the state to provide day care for the children of working women. As "compensation", women with three or more children are to be offered benefits to stay at home and care for them.
Ironically, Melikyan is far from being the most ruthless of government ministers where questions of wages and employment are concerned. At his February 10 press conference he repeatedly contradicted cabinet policy, arguing that if major social unrest was to be avoided, privatised enterprises should be forbidden to cut their work forces for three to five years. "We have to make corrections on our reform program, even if it means delaying the reforms", he said.
Russia's "official" unemployed, fewer than 1% of the work force, account for only a fraction of the number who are chronically out of work. Starved of credits and raw materials, factories have typically shut down for as much as several weeks each month rather than carry out mass sackings. As many as 5% of the work force do not have full-time employment, and this figure will rise sharply when new legislation is introduced allowing loss-making enterprises to be declared bankrupt.
The government's efforts to limit unemployment at the expense of women will have cruel consequences for the women affected and their families.
Keeping a family on one wage was difficult enough in the old Soviet Union; now, it is virtually impossible. A recent Economics Ministry study found that one third of Russia's population is living below the officially defined subsistence level. While prices last year rose by 26 times, the average wage increased only 13.5 times.