Unions across the country are pushing for Australia to offer women paid time off while they’re menstruating, or suffering symptoms of menopause, in a bid to rebalance gendered leave entitlements.
With the help of the law firm Maurice Blackburn, some of Australia’s biggest unions hope to get both menstrual and menopause leave written into the Fair Work Act in the same way that paid family and domestic violence leave were just months ago.
If the unions are successful, Australia could become just the second Western nation to legislate both entitlements, after the Spanish government greenlit a menstrual leave law in May that would entitle women to three days’ menstrual leave a month. In Australia, though, it’s looking like the entitlement would be closer to one day a month or 12 a year.
Linda Revill, national coordinator of property services at the United Workers Union, told VICE the entitlements would come long overdue.
“It’s time our workplace legislation was redrafted to finally and properly acknowledge that half the population are women. Menstrual and menopausal leave are crucial for working womens’ rights, which too often go unnoticed,” Revill said.
“We must also have a discussion about how proper rights to leave for women apply across the board and do not leave out those trapped in insecure and casual work.”
The idea isn’t a new one.
The Soviet Union, according to Elizabeth Hill, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, was among the first to adopt a menstrual leave policy, around 1922, before fading away under circumstances still unknown to researchers.
In Japan, meanwhile, a menstrual leave policy was first introduced in 1947 as an “industrial right” that allowed employers to deny women basic amenities at work, like clean workspaces or even toilets, by sending them home while they were menstruating. The policy is still around today, but polling suggests most women pass on it for fears their bosses will use it against them.
The sentiment is shared in Indonesia, where the state of play is similar: menstrual leave entitlements were introduced in 1948 as an industrial right, leveraged by bosses who didn’t want to give the women working for them access to the most basic of amenities.
The policy was eventually ground down in 2003, doing away with a mandate that required employers to give workers two days of paid leave, in favour of ad-hoc negotiations between businesses and unions.
South Korea introduced a policy of its own in 2001, even if only unpaid. There, women are able to get one unpaid day off each month, but the policy has long been contentious and provoked the ire of men’s rights types to cry “reverse sexism”. Women there, unsurprisingly, don’t often take the leave, either.
For women across the union movement in Australia, it’s feared workers will face familiar challenges. Stacey Schinnerl, Queensland branch secretary at the Australia Workers Union, told The Australian that unions would be trying to “win the hearts and minds of probably a really tough crowd”.
“We’re under no illusions that this is going to be a difficult conversation for a myriad of reasons. One, because it’s something that is inherently a guarded and difficult conversation for men to engage in anyway,” Schinnerl said.
“But, moreover, we are going to have to deal with the battle around men saying 'well, what do I get?’ which traditionally seems to raise its head when we are talking about improving conditions for women in the workplace,” she said.
“What men get is an uninterrupted existence while women can get a very traumatic and painful experience every single month for every single year of their reproductive lives. If women could choose, we would not experience this. We would like to opt out but that’s not our reality.”
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