Armenia: Legal loophole leaves new mothers in a lurch

Journalist: Ruzan Gishyan,

Photographer: Hakob Margaryan

Topic: Women Employment

Nane Asatryan-Bagratuni, 40, the former deputy governor of Armenia’s south-eastern Vayots Dzor region, had 20 days until she left on maternity leave when she was told she had been fired. 

Asatryan-Bagratuni suddenly found herself facing a common dilemma for women in Armenia: a labor code that offers zero protection for her or her child due to her employment status. 

Asatryan-Bagratuni says that she worked during the most difficult period of Covid and the Armenian-Azerbaijani war, and did not have any problems with the governors she worked with. The decision to dismiss her came as an unexpected blow.

In Armenia it is illegal to refuse to hire a woman because she is pregnant or has a child under the age of three—or to fire her. In reality, however, scores of employers are using a legal loophole to dismiss women on maternity leave or refuse to pay the maternity benefits guaranteed by law.

The labor code makes a clear distinction between specific types of labor contracts and only one category, employment contracts, are recognized as legal employment, offering full benefits to workers including paid maternity leave. Other types of contracts, even if they represent full time jobs and fully taxed salaries, are not eligible.

Lawyer Gevorg Sloyan told Chai Khana the difference between the two categoriesemployment contract and service provider contract is significant.

“A person with a contract for the provision of services is not considered an employee and, therefore, does not have the rights of an employee defined by the labor code and the opportunity to use the mechanisms for protecting those rights,” he said.

“Therefore, it does not matter whether a woman pays taxes or not. If she does not have an employment contract, she is not considered an employee and does not have the right to maternity leave, child care leave, maternity and child care benefits.”

If a woman has an employment contract, the state guarantees them 140 days of paid maternity leave, which includes 70 days during their pregnancy and 70 days after. Women with more than one child receive an additional 40 days of paid leave. In addition, whichever parent is the full time caregiver—mother or father—can request up to three years of leave.  

For those who do not have an employment contract, however, there are no guaranteed benefits. Data from the Monitoring Impacts of Covid-19 in Armenia, World Bank (2021) shows that the legal differences between these types of labor agreements mean the majority of women lose out: before the 2020 pandemic, 69 percent of employed women who participated in the survey did not have any type of contract at all. Among the men and women with a contract, only 13.3 percent qualified for full benefits, according to the World Bank. 

Despite the weight the type of contract carries under Armenian law, many women are unaware of the differences.

When 33-year-old journalist Nune Martirosyan got her first media job after graduation, she did not pay attention to the contract she signed. However, years later, when she got married, she found out the contract did not include any maternity leave or other rights for parents. 

“After my first child, I did not receive any state support, because I was considered a non-working mother and at that time there was no support for a non-working mother. Instead I took unpaid leave and returned to work as soon as my baby turned seven months old.”

Nune Martirosyan insists that the market is not controlled and employees are pressured to sign contracts that favor the employer’s interests.

Astghik Karapetyan, the founder of Point 33, a human rights organization that specializes in women's reproductive and labor rights, underscored the challenge women face if they lack the proper work contract. 

“In fact, it is difficult to protect already violated rights in Armenia․ In each case, of course, it is possible to go to court, but it is a time-consuming process and also costly,” she says, adding that employers tend to view women as “a problem,” not a valued asset worth investment.  

“They perceive a pregnant woman as a problem, and they don't want to invest in their staff, but we have to change that perception because, one to two months [following childbirth], a woman can combine child care with work. If a person is responsible and loves her work, then she will do it. And of course, studies conducted in many countries have shown that if an employer creates the conditions for a mother to combine child care and work, then the woman works with great dedication and high motivation.” 

The former official, Nane Asatryan-Bagratuni, decided to take her case to court, even though, as a temporarily appointed official, she did not have an employment contract. She says it is worth the effort to reform the law. “I wanted and decided to protect the rights of my unborn child,” she says. 

Asatryan-Bagratuni decided to go to court, because she wanted the gap in the law to be filled and her case became a precedent for other women as well. 

The court of first instance ruled against her. She is appealing the court’s decision.

“I am going to go through all judicial instances and go to international ones too, because this is a question of principle, it is a question of attitude towards every citizen of the Republic of Armenia, unborn child and pregnant woman. It doesn't matter how long it takes, I will deal with it and pursue it so that there is a change in the current law and a woman holding a political position is more protected,” Asatryan-Bagratuni told Chai Khana.  “A mother is a powerful weapon in the management and leadership of the state. We must realize this and have many women and mothers in management positions.” 

Currently, however, most women lack the means to challenge their dismissals in court. Their only option, according to the current law, is to out an application for the one-time payment (156,600 drams) offered to unemployed mothers. The government also provides all mothers with one-time payments regardless of their employment status. The size of the payment depends on the number of children in the family.

Journalist Nune Martirosyan calculated her family lost around over $2000 in benefits because she had to take the one-time payment instead of qualifying for state benefits. She worked at the public broadcaster as a video editor and social media specialist before she had her second child. Martirosyan says her boss constantly promised she would be able to sign a labor contract but it never happened.  

According to the RA Statistical Committee's “ Women and Men of Armenia, 2021՛՛ report, women are more likely to work in low-wage and informal sectors, which means they are more likely to be unregistered employees and not receive paid leave for illness or childbirth. They are also less likely to have health insurance and other social guarantees.

“I decided to leave before I got pregnant, because I had nothing to lose, I would not be able to secure my job while on maternity leave, and I was going to receive a lump sum from the state for an unemployed mother anyway,” she says. “I would have received more than one million drams (over $2,500) if I had had a work contract.” 

Human rights advocate Karapetyan noted that many women are not aware of their right to ask for child care at work. Businesses are not legally required to provide it and currently few do.

Sorriso Gelato café is one of the few organizations that has created a family-friendly environment under its roof.

One exception is the Sorriso Gelato café, which created a family friendly environment․ There is a separate breastfeeding room at the cafe, a breastfeeding pillow, wet wipes, powder, and diapers. The use of the room is free for cafe employees and customers. There is also a separate playroom where parents can leave their children as long as they want for a 1000 dram fee ($2). 

“A woman's role is great in any job, as well as a man's. Balance is very important. There are fewer conflicts and higher efficiency when the number of female and male employees in the team is balanced,” says Ani Hovakimyan,  the head of the Sorriso Gelato cafe marketing department.

Ani Hovakimyan, the head of the Sorriso Gelato cafe marketing department, said the business does not consider gender when they hire employees, and they try to be flexible with schedules when workers are pregnant or have infants at home. 

“We have had employees who came to work up to seven months pregnant and came back after two years, one year later. If they needed to come to work with a baby, it was no problem. We never had a problem with extra days off or giving free hours. We have an employee who is having her second child while working with us,” she says, noting the decision should be up to the woman.  

“I went back to work 30 days after the birth of my first baby and it saved me from postpartum depression,” she added. “When you feel fully capable of organizing the day as a mother or as a business woman, you are at peace with yourself, and that is what your child needs.” 

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