By Conor Courtney
The prospective Spanish legislation providing for days off for employees suffering from menstrual cramps garnered worldwide attention in the media in recent weeks. However, this is not the first initiative of its type, and there may be much to learn from similar practices taking place across the globe.
The Spanish Legislation
The Spanish government is set to pass a law offering three days of menstrual leave a month for workers who experience severe period pain. Further proposed measures include enabling girls aged 16 and 17 to have access to abortion services, without the requirement of parental consent.
The bill, additionally, proposes that educational institutions must provide feminine hygiene products when necessary, and that these products should also be made available to those in prison, and those more likely to experience “menstrual poverty”. The bill plans to remove a sales levy on these products, often known as the ‘pink tax’.
Interestingly, a similar legislative framework was considered for introduction in another EU member state, Italy, five years ago, in 2017. The Italian bill also proposed a 3-day leave for “painful periods”. Although Italy was “set to become the first country in Europe to offer paid menstrual leave to women suffering from period pain”, the draft bill did not progress before the parliamentary term expired in 2018.
This comes in the wake of shocking women’s employment statistics in Italy, where it was reported that Italy has one of the lowest rates of female workers in Europe, only 61%, while the European average is 72%. According to a report by ISTAT, Italy’s national bureau of statistics, “almost one-fourth of pregnant workers are fired during or right after their pregnancies”.
In contrast to the novelty of period-related leave springing up within Europe, the entitlement to take time off due to period cramps has existed for years, if not decades, in certain Asian countries.
Japan’s period leave has existed for 75 years, and was first introduced in 1947 to address labour rights concerns.
This right originated with female factory workers, who were granted period leave to give them a reprieve from harsh labour and poor sanitary conditions, while struggling with menstrual pain. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, period leave entitlement was written into the country’s new labour laws as a right for all female employees whose periods are “especially difficult.”
We can learn a lot from Japan’s attitude towards period leave. Fundamentally, given its longevity, we can see how the leave has actually been adopted by employees. Take-up was initially very high, at around 26% in 1965, but as time went on this leave became less commonly availed of. A Japanese government survey in 2017 found that only 0.9% of female employees claimed period leave.
In South Korea, female employees are entitled to menstrual leave according to Article 71 of the Labour Standards Law, and are ensured additional pay if they do not take the menstrual leave that they are entitled to. South Korea adopted this period leave in 1953, and again reports indicate that usage is dropping. In a 2013 survey, 23.6% of South Korean women used the leave. By 2017, that rate had fallen to 19.7%.
India had its “Menstruation Benefits Bill, 2018”, which prescribed that every woman could have at least two days of menstrual leave every month, tabled in parliament. However, there are period leave rights being created across India, in the form of corporations which voluntarily provide period leave rights for their employees, including Swiggy, Byju’s, and Zomato.
This approach has also been seen in the United Kingdom, where, in 2015, a company called Coexist in Bristol, introduced a “period policy” that lets women leave work if they suffer from serious pain.
Although the EU is not at the forefront of period leave legislation, the recent attempts to introduce these measures in Spain indicate a step forward in protecting the rights of those who suffer from menstrual pain. Although this is an often-undiscussed topic, 30 to 40% of all people who have a period suffer from severe pain and other symptoms every month, and several studies show that menstrual cramps are responsible for an average of nine days of lost productivity per year.
Although Spain’s cabinet approved the bill, it is not clear whether Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s minority coalition government has enough support in the assembly to pass it. Hopefully, this bill will not become yet another piece of menstruation legislation to be forgotten, or ultimately rejected.