Unimplemented laws and the decline in economic opportunities for women: ‘Soup in the bowl but burnt mouth’

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Following the recent announcements by Ayatollah Khamanei calling for an increase in Iran’s population to 150 million,[1] legislators and law enforcement officials who portray women’s employment as the most important barrier to this rise in population, are more than ever before seeking ways and means of decreasing the rate of female employment and limiting them behind the walls of their homes in order to fulfil their ‘motherly duties’.

Increased maternity leave, considering telecommuting (working from home) for women in employment, part-time employment, early retirement and a decrease in the number of hours for women, are among plans and bills that in recent years formed part of the government’s policies aimed at increasing Iran’s population. However, these plans and bills that, although still unimplemented, remain under consideration and consultation, have already affected the market for female employment and led to a decline in women’s access to the job market.

Based on the latest official reports during 2015, the rate of women’s economic participation in Iran was 13.8%.[2] This means that 78% of Iranian women have no share in the Iranian economy. Furthermore, they are not even considered as part of the workforce in search of employment. In other words, from among 27 million women in Iran, only 3 million are in employment and the rest are considered homemakers.[3] The project to survey the labour force in 2015 published by Iran’s National Statistics shows that the rate of unemployment among women is more than double that among men, and even more among youth between the ages of 15 and 29.[4]

Under such conditions, when more than 70% of educated women in Iran are unemployed[5] and cultural barriers on their path to employment keep them behind the walls of their homes, announcing laws that highlight the ‘duty’ of homemaking and motherhood among women as particular ‘advantages’, places another barrier on this path of unequal competition.

A look at the laws aimed at increasing maternity leave to 9 months and the recently passed bill entitled ‘Reduced working hours for female employees with special circumstances’[6] demonstrate the manner in which these two laws, the first due to lack of sufficient budget, and the second, approved as recently as last June,[7] have yet to be announced to the executive bodies,[8] leave a negative impact on statistics regarding women’s employment, leaving public and private sector employers hesitant to hire women who are entitled to more leave.

Maternity leave was increased from 6 to 9 months, following years of debate and challenges. It was finally approved by the parliament on 13thJune 2013 and announced to the executive bodies the same year.[9]

This plan has not yet been implemented due to the lack of a budget.[10] According to Mohammad Hassan Zeda, the Technical Assistant for Social Security and Assistance, “the government is not able to implement the plan to offer 9 month long maternity leave because it does not have even a single Rial in its budget.”[11] Furthermore, Shahindokht Molaverdi, the Vice President for Women’s Affairs states that for every three women employed in the private sector who during 2014 went on maternity leave, one was not able to return to work, so in other words, was fired.[12]

While this law is presented as an ‘advantage’ for women, where women in public service, who according to the previous law benefit from 6 months maternity leave have no job security, based on recent statistics announced by Mohammad Hassan Zeda in an 18 month period starting in 2013, more than 47,000 women on 6 month long maternity leave were fired. The Technical Assistant for Social Security predicts that by implementing the increase in maternity leave to 9 months, the number of women who face expulsion due to maternity leave will be “greatly” increased, because “in light of current market dynamics, many highly educated citizens are willing to work for low wages”.[13] The dangers of expelling women and even worse, considering them for unemployment, are not limited to those women who might take “advantage” of increased maternity leave, because along with laws such as ‘Reduced working hours for female employees with special circumstances’ all those among the 13% recognised as the female workforce face greater limitations and threats.

According to the bill entitled ‘Reduced working hours for female employees with special circumstances’ which following responses to the points raised by the Guardian Council was approved in June and will soon be announced by the government, women with children below the age of 6, female heads of households, and women with disabled husbands or children will work 36 hours instead of 44 hours per week but will receive the same benefits.[14]

This bill that at first was introduced by parliamentarians and included the entire scope of women in employment, following the government’s rejection due to the lack of budget and its financial burden, was re-presented as part of another bill with a smaller scope. However, the threats it imposes remain in place.

Supporters of this bill state that only a small proportion of the 13% of women in employment are affected by this bill, and that it poses no threat to women in employment in general. However from the standpoint of employers, any woman might sooner or later expect a child and for each child below the age of six to be entitled to one day off work with pay or to become the head of her household following divorce or the death of her spouse, or the disablement of her children or spouse, which would entitle her to undertake less work but with full pay, would be very costly.

In reality such laws that seemingly support women not only result in employers expelling female employees but in fact decrease the chances of employment for all women who have the potential to face special circumstances.

Although clause 6 of the bill states that executive bodies and employers in the private sector affected by this bill cannot justify the expulsion or transfer of women due to the decrease in the number of working hours, however, for temporary and short term contracts without extension, if justified with other excuses, present easy ways of ignoring this, something that is now prevalent among employers.

Granting special privileges to the private sector in return for employing women on fewer working hours, in light of unfulfilled promises, cannot encourage or guarantee the female sector of the market that is legally entitled to work less hours with full pay.

Official statistics and statements by government authorities including those by Seyyed Abolhassan Firouzabadi, the Deputy Minister for Cooperatives, Labour and Social Services, shows that the ‘considerations for social circumstances affecting women initiative’ has resulted in a decline in their employment rates.[15]

For instance, in April 2015 Alireza Mahboub, a member of the Social Committee of the Parliament, while the bill remained under consideration, stated that the declining rate of female employment was a result of “measures aimed at decreasing the number of working hours for women” and that presenting such plans would “cause a decline in demand by employers for female employees in different fields resulting in doubling the rate of unemployment among women.”[16]

Reports by the Research Centre of the Iranian Parliament confirm concerns regarding the impact of these bills. In this report, pointing to the fact that such bills will worsen conditions for all employed women, it highlights that it will not offer any positive benefits to women with social circumstances either and emphasises: “Protective measure in this bill does not only offer any solution to the problems faced by this segment of the female population in employment, but also due to its lack of resorting to any special techniques, results in greater harm to them… and gradually decreases the willingness of employers and executive bodies to employ them.”[17]

In addition to the ‘decline in demand by employers’ for female employees, the situation of employment in the public sector is also disappointing. During the 2015 employment examinations, out of 2,800 positions, 2,284 positions were allocated to men and only 16 positions were allocated to women. This year out of 3,000 positions, 961 positions were exclusively allocated to men and only 16 positions were exclusively allocated to women.[18]

All management and executive positions are exclusively allocated to men and 16 positions in mid-management were allocated to women.[19] In addition to extreme gender-based discrimination in the positions exclusively allocated to men, throughout the rest of the hiring process men have better chances of employment and so the new laws on reducing women’s working hours can decrease women’s chances even further.

In effect, in addition to other objections to these illusive ‘advantages’ that appear positive and supportive measures for female employees, without addressing other barriers faced by women seeking employment, in the long term women’s presence in the labour force will be more limited and will make reaching management positions even more difficult. The main and more urgent problem may be that presenting and approving such laws that portray the seeming advantages not yet in effect, already impose problems in securing employment or extending employment contracts.

Official statistics confirm that during recent years women in employment or those seeking employment are living embodiments of an old Persian expression “Soup in the bowl but burnt mouth” where, with no benefit from such illusive advantages, women are accelerating down the hill of lost employment opportunities.

[2] Persian source from the Iranian Agricultural News Agency, http://www.iana.ir/media/k2/attachments/89/Amar.pdf

[3] Persian source from Donya-e-Eqtesad Newspaper, http://donya-e-eqtesad.com/SiteKhan/1065826

[4] Persian source from the Iranian Agricultural News Agency, http://www.iana.ir/media/k2/attachments/89/Amar.pdf

[5] Persian source from Donya-e-Eqtesad Newspaper, http://donya-e-eqtesad.com/SiteKhan/1065826

[6] Persian source from the website of Iranian parliament at: http://rc.majlis.ir/fa/legal_draft/show/971511

[9] Although along with other approved bills announced between May 2014 until revised decision remained unimplemented, however during the September of the same year Ishagh Jahangiri, the First Deputy to the President announced that the government will once again announce this law to the executive powers as women’s maternity leave has officially been increased to 9 months.

[14] Iran has a 6 day working week.

[16] Persian source from Resalat Newspaper, http://resalat-news.com/Fa/?code=202966

[17] Persian source from the Islamic Parliament Resource Centre, http://rc.majlis.ir/fa/legal_draft/show/847718

[18] The qualifying examination for 2016 following orders of President Rouhani have been postponed due to gender-based discrimination in job allocations, however, it is not clear to what extent review of the positions will result in higher number of positions for women at the managerial level. Please see BBC Persian article from August 2016, http://www.bbc.com/persian/iran/2016/07/160731_me_rouhani_gender_imbalance_mploymen

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