Pregnant women are the first to be laid off during economic crises, according to a study published Sunday by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and figures released separately by both the Israel Women's Network and the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry's Equal Opportunities Employment Commission. Released in time for International Women's Day on Sunday, the Hebrew University study found that despite far reaching legislation designed to protect pregnant women in the workplace, more than half of the pregnant women fired in recent months have been let go illegally. "Even if employers cite the economic crisis as a reason for firing a pregnant woman, they must still seek the relevant permission from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry," Nirit Toshav Eichner, a post-doctorate student who carried out the study, told The Jerusalem Post. She said that her findings, based on interviews with pregnant women who had been fired and on statistics from various government offices, indicated that more than 50 percent of employers who fired pregnant staff over the past few months did not follow the legal channels and therefore could be considered "criminals" under the law. According to the Women's Law of 1954, any employer who wants to dismiss a pregnant woman must first present the case to the ministry for it to decide if the intended redundancy is fair - e.g. if the company is struggling financially - or if is discrimination based on the woman's condition. "Pregnant women are the weakest link, they are the exact opposite of an ideal employee, and because she will not be around for much longer, it's easy for an employer to justify letting her go," said Toshav Eichner. She has studied how the Women's Law has been implemented in the past 60 years and says that today's situation is very similar to that during the economic recessions of the 1980s and 2001-02. "Once again we are seeing that women are the first to be hurt by the economic situation," said Nurit Zur, director of the Israel Woman's Network, whose annual report was also released on Sunday. "Employers are again viewing women as the second class earners in their families, and that is why it's much easier to rationalize firing them first." The network, which runs a legal advice help line, reported that over the past three months it has received some 350 calls from pregnant women who have been fired, up from 140 such calls during the same period last year. Meanwhile, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry's Equal Opportunities Employment Commission reported Sunday that 29% of calls to its report center claimed unfair dismissal on the grounds of being pregnant. "In a time of recession, when so many people are being fired or companies are cutting back their salaries, it is always society's weakest populations who are hurt," said commissioner Tziona Koenig-Yair. "It's always the ones who are discriminated against in good times who are the first to go." Koenig-Yair urged all workers who feel their firing was unfair to report their case immediately to the ministry. The commission's hot line can be reached at (02) 666-2780. "All workers should know their rights, because that is the only way they can stand up for themselves," she said, adding that the ministry has recently received double the usual amount of requests from employers asking for legal permission to fire their pregnant employees. "If the firing is not directly connected to the pregnancy, then it is not considered discrimination," she explained. "However, we do have laws and even if it is a legitimate way for a company to make cutbacks, they must still go through the accepted channels."