Dear Trade Unions: Could We Include Menstrual Leave in the Fight for Workers' Rights, or Is It Too Much to Ask?
Never have we needed trade unions more to protect our sexual and reproductive health rights
BY BEAUTY DHLAMINI
"Before viewing these policies as ‘tricky’, ‘stigmatising’ or ‘expensive’, it might be helpful to give them a proper focus, and embrace the tide of change."
BY BEAUTY DHLAMINI
2 September 2022
Every day, across the country, millions of workers drag themselves to work even though they are menstruating. Most of them feel the obligation to push through, with the consequences of presenteeism never fully addressed. And most fear employers closely keeping track of sick days and applying sanctions like a reduced pay.
For many of these people, the very experience of menstruating, work aside, can include cramping or pain around the abdomen, lower back pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue, weakness, fainting, or headaches – and these are the more ‘manageable’ symptoms. While some experience a more ‘comfortable’ monthly cycle, others with conditions like endometriosis or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) can experience a range of life-changing side-effects, such as infertility and disability. According to the Office on Women’s Health, 5% to 10% of menstruating people experience period pain so severe that it disrupts their lifestyle.
“I always dread being on my period because of the intense pain I feel. I can barely stand, let alone work, but if I don’t go in, I won’t get paid. I have to heavily self-medicate just to be able to get through the day but even then, I still feel it. I once fainted at work, and they wanted to send me to a hospital but I begged them not to, because I did not want to lose any sick days”.
This is what frontline NHS worker Nina, 28, shared with me when I spoke to her about her experience about working whilst menstruating. She further went on to state that if she was entitled to leave due to the symptoms she experienced, she would feel more comfortable taking time off or working from home when she was in pain.
Unknown to many, this type of policy often considered a ‘benefit’ does exist for workers at some companies across the world, even in the UK. This is what is known as ‘menstrual leave’.
Menstrual leave presents workers who experience a spectrum of painful menstrual or other reproductive symptoms outside of pregnancy (including menopause) the options for remote work, and a set number of paid-leave days every year, on top of company mandated and agreed paid sick leave.
However, menstrual leave is not something that is new as it has existed in various forms globally for 100 years: the Soviet Union introduced a national policy in 1922 and 1931, Japan introduced it in 1947, followed by Indonesia in 1948. But it is important to contextualise the passing of these policies before we hail them as progressive, when many of them were designed to reinforce the sexist and patriarchal limits of women’s bodies, especially in their role as mothers.
If widely introduced however, women, non-binary and transgender people who menstruate do stand to have more accommodating and safer working environments to manage the spectrum of these symptoms.
As obvious as it would seem to universalise the concept, the implementation of menstrual leave as an actual nationwide policy is still rare. No concrete plans seem to be in place in the UK for example, despite a number of calls from charities. But the idea of introducing these policies is spreading in some countries that have not traditionally offered support for menstruating employees, with Spain becoming the first European country to do so.
Yet, since menstrual leave policies have started to gain more traction in other European countries like France, some of its critics globally and in the UK have argued that they could have the opposite effect, further stigmatising people with periods and hindering gender equality, as those who menstruate are more likely to be treated differently compared to those that do not.
But before viewing these policies as ‘tricky’, ‘stigmatising’ or ‘expensive’, it might be helpful to give them a proper focus, and embrace the tide of change. Increasing the need for menstrual leave policies would need to go hand in hand with a broader cultural shift around reproductive health and gender justice. The recent overturning of Roe vs Wade has underlined ongoing state sponsored attacks on women and transgender people’s fundamental rights, and never has there been a time where trade unions were more crucially needed in applying pressure for our reproductive health rights.
With the current wave of strikes across industries in what has come to be known as ‘hot strike summer’, the disappointment and rage of UK workers is palpable at the forefront of these strikes – workers who have had enough of being exploited, underpaid, and are now empowered to demand better. As many of their demands are focused on fairer wages, and better overall working conditions, it is quite surprising that a policy such as menstrual leave is still rarely given the attention it needs in that conversation.
“The reason this isn’t done, is because of men,” shared Tony Collins, a tube driver and RMT Safety Representative when pressed on the issue of why menstrual leave has been neglected in union agendas, or mainstreamed into sick pay arrangements. “There is a very deeply ingrained white male sexism at the local, regional and national level within the union movement. At each of these levels, there are people, men, who think this is just about winning these strikes – without thinking about what half their members or more in some industries actually need”. Tony went on to explain that if this was, in fact, made a demand, unions might actually see more women take part in strike activity.
Some key barriers Tony further went on to highlight were employer costs, staff shortages, division of labour and gender discriminations that could occur: “There would be one simple barrier in implementing this, and that would be employing extra staff. These companies look to cut costs where they can. One other barrier would be men believing all the work will be put to them, as women and people who menstruate would be taking ‘so much time off’’.”
These reasons, alongside the stigma and shame of menstruating, is only further supported by the outcomes of trying to implement these policies, as uptake of menstrual leave is still incredibly low. Many of those who menstruate feel as though it would only disadvantage them in the workplace, and make them seem ‘weaker’ in comparison to their male counterparts. A further issue to consider for trade unions, the rights associated with menstrual leave including the ability to work from home or even getting paid for the days taken off would not be an option offered to everyone, or one that everyone could take. The situation might also be unclear for frontline workers, such as those on zero-hour contracts.
“It’s unlikely that a policy like this one would be prioritised right now. Unions are on the defensive right as it is, and are demanding what they consider to be ‘important’,” Tony remarked, when I asked if he saw a menstrual leave policy being implemented in the UK anytime soon. Evidently, menstrual leave is not a priority for the men in trade union circles just yet.
To avoid complicating things, menstrual leave might as well be mainstreamed as a dimension in regular sick leave policies and more broadly wider understandings on health and safety in the workplace. As part of the process of collective action, this could feed into other basic working condition demands, including awareness of how the menstrual cycle functions to evidence the need for clean hygienic bathrooms, and fair working hours where employees can afford to take toilet breaks. Ultimately, mainstreaming menstruation in the trade union demands agenda will not only have a positive result for this country’s workers, it will also give a little recognition to the needs of those who menstruate. After all, isn’t the point of unions to protect and improve our conditions of employment?