Federal law requires that employers provide the following hygiene products to workers at no cost: toilet paper, warm water, soap and a way to dry their hands.
So why don’t employers also have to supply tampons and pads, basic hygiene products used routinely by roughly half the population?
In a notice published Friday in the Canada Gazette, the federal government signalled its intention to correct that oversight.
“Having open and honest conversations around menstruation, and providing women and employees with the products they need, is part of our plan to ensure equality for women and support safe and healthy work environments,” Patty Hajdu, the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, said in a statement.
The pushback was immediate, and largely predictable, especially on social media. The Liberals were accused of “virtue signalling” and trying to buy women’s votes. There were endless variations on “there is no free lunch” and “buy your own plugs and pads” views, with most of the hot takes coming from men hiding behind online sobriquets.
Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, offered up a sarcastic response on Twitter: “Hurrah! Our caring and generous government is removing another major social inequity by solving the Great Menstrual Products Unavailability Crisis of the early 21st century. How in the world were previous generations able to manage their lives without such help from Ottawa?!”
Ms. Hajdu was having none of it. She said every woman has experienced starting their period unexpectedly without having the supplies they need, and wondered how men would feel having to scrounge around and borrow toilet paper when they had an unexpected bowel movement. (A U.S. study found that 86 per cent of women have been caught short without menstrual supplies at work or in public, and experienced anxiety and embarrassment as a result.)
The Labour Code amendment would apply only the 1.2 million workers in federally regulated sectors such as banks, telecommunications, transport, national defence and the RCMP.
There will first be a six-month consultation, where some important details need to be worked out such as what type of menstrual products should be provided, how they will be dispensed and the financial implications.
While it’s true that those who will benefit at first are relatively well-off, the move has important symbolic value. It should spur other employers to do the same.
Already, there has been a push to make menstrual products available in high schools, college and university campuses, where younger women no longer tolerate the “don’t talk about it” and suffer-silently attitudes of yore about menstruation.
We are, thankfully, far removed from the challenges of countries where girls and women who are menstruating are denied an education or forced to hide themselves away, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do better.
The younger generation is also embracing more ecologically sound, reusable menstrual products such as the Diva Cup and GladRags. (The average woman uses 12,000 to 16,000 disposable pads, panty liners, and tampons in her lifetime.)
B.C. has been a leader, mandating that all public schools must provide menstrual supplies to students and staff.
A survey conducted last year by Plan International Canada found that 70 per cent of women have missed work or school, or withdrawn from social or sporting activities, because of their period. That polling also revealed that one in three Canadian women under the age of 25 experience “period poverty,” struggling to afford menstrual products.
That’s why initiatives such as the Period Purse have sprung up to provide menstrual supplies for women who are homeless, in shelters and in remote Indigenous communities. Food banks also provide tampons and pads, but they are in such short supply that they tend to be rationed.
Ideally, the goal should be to make costly menstrual products more available and affordable to all. Four years ago, the federal government removed taxes from menstruation-related products after the “No Tax on Tampons” campaign.
Now, it’s taken another small step, recognizing that the lack of access to menstrual products can create barriers for employees.
None of this – as some critics claim – alleviates personal responsibility. Just because toilet paper is provided in workplace and public washrooms doesn’t mean people don’t buy it for their homes. Nor will women fill shopping bags with tampons because they’re free at work, and, if they do, it should be treated like taking any other office supplies.
Women still earn 87 cents for every dollar earned by men. Perhaps a little menstrual equity at work will bring us a tiny step closer to gender equity.