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Women in mining: Will Mongolia’s proposed new Labour Law encourage greater participation by women

While copper exports from the Rio Tinto Oyu Tolgoi mine alone are expected to constitute 30% of Mongolia's GDP, women make up a disproportionately small percentage of the work force in Mongolia's mining sector.

This is a pressing issue for the country and one that will become even more so as the mining sector goes through its next wave of development following the recent resolution of the long-running dispute between the Government and Rio Tinto and the signing of the Underground Development Plan for the US$5.4 billion second phase of the Oyu Tolgoi copper/gold mine.

Mongolian women are better educated than Mongolia's men – there is a female-to-male ratio of 145 per cent in tertiary education – and Mongolia has a female-to-male labour force participation rate of 82 per cent. Yet women are still under-represented in management and decision-making positions, especially in the private sector.

Traditionally, cultural norms and outdated socialist laws prohibited women from working in certain types of mining activities.

In 1999, relying on Article 101.1 of the Mongolian Labour Law (1999), which permits the relevant Minister to approve a list of occupations women are prohibited from undertaking, women were shut out of underground work and driving trucks that are larger than 2.5 tons. In effect, women were barred from working in the more dangerous, yet higher growth and higher paying mining sector.

Even though this restriction was declared invalid in 2008 on the basis of gender discrimination, women still remain significantly underrepresented in the sector.

The very laws that seek to protect women, in practice often act as deterrents to their employment. Protections afforded to women in the current Labour Law include:

  • a woman who is pregnant or who has a child under three years of age cannot have her employment terminated (even for redundancy) except if the business is being liquidated or serious misconduct can be proven – given the cyclical nature of the mining industry, this represents a very significant limitation on the ability of a mining company to manage its resources;
  • a woman with a child under three years of age is entitled to unlimited unpaid carer's leave, even after she has returned to work – for companies, this creates operational difficulties;
  • a woman who is pregnant or has a child up to three years of age or who requires special care is entitled to additional breaks and reduced working hours (all fully paid) – two hours (per day) for a mother of a child under six months and one hour (per day) until the child reaches one year;
  • the voluntary retirement age for women is 55 – five years earlier than for men and 10 years earlier, at 45, if a woman has four or more children. While women can work longer than the retirement age if they want to, in practice many employers encourage women to leave early so they can be replaced with younger staff; and
  • as mentioned above, the Minister of Labour is authorised to approve a list of job positions that women are prohibited to undertake.

The draft of the new Labour Law, which was presented to Parliament in June 2015, proposes to remove the limitations on women carrying certain physical loads and working in certain positions. It is proposed that going forward the Ministry of Health and Labour will have the right to determine a list of positions that pregnant and nursing mothers are prohibited from working in on the basis that they are dangerous to the health of a mother or baby. A pregnant woman or a nursing mother is already prohibited from working in any position that requires contact with dangerous or toxic chemical substances under the Law on Dangerous or Toxic Chemical Substances (2006).

The draft Labour Law does not remove the other protections currently afforded to women. Rather, it seeks to broaden those protections to any person who is responsible for child care. It is proposed that some of the specific provisions that currently apply only to women will apply to both male and female employees with children and, in the case of child care leave, this entitlement will also be available to working grandfathers and grandmothers.

Affording such protections to men and women equally may reduce the risk that employers hesitate to employ women. However, the Mongolian regulatory regime is not solely responsible for the disproportionately few women working in the mining sector.

The underrepresentation of women in management and on-site positions in the mining sector is not unique to Mongolia, or to mining in developing nations. The Minerals Council of Australia Gender Diversity White Paper (June 2013) and the 2014 Summary Paper on the same topic each conclude that some of the key impediments to women working in the mining industry include:

  • female study choices at school, TAFE and university;
  • a lack of qualified mentors;
  • a lack of management skills to deal with diversity;
  • lack of confidence among many women to 'lean in' on their career;
  • the masculine image and culture of the industry;
  • working conditions – long hours/lack of part-time work/emphasis on FIFO and remote work;
  • lack of appropriate on-ramps for Return to Work; and
  • reasonable' objections – the view that it's ok for there to be a permanent deficit of women because of gender orientation towards certain careers or childbirth or the supposed lack of qualified women directors

These same impediments apply equally to Mongolia. In an Adam Smith Institute paper entitled 'Social And Gendered Impacts related to Mining, Mongolia' published in April this year, the following barriers to the participation of women in Mongolia's mining sector were identified:

  • absence of family-friendly workplace policies;
  • sexual harassment and discrimination;
  • lack of career pathways and leadership roles; and
  • lack of support and mentoring.

Gender stereotypes and segregation in employment in the mining sector need to be addressed to ensure that Mongolian women have equal access to economic opportunities in an economy which is so dependent on mining. Employment in mining, mining service companies and local businesses connected to the mining industry is one of the highest potential economic benefits from the sector.

As the Mongolian mining sector goes through its next wave of development, it will be essential to involve women in management positions to ensure diverse and inclusive decision-making practices or the sector will face many challenges in matters such as getting a social license from local communities.