Five minutes with Labour Minister Patty Hajdu on offering free menstrual products in the workplace
On May 3, Labour Minister Patty Hajdu published a notice of intent, initiating a regulatory process to make free menstrual products available in federally regulated workplaces. There’s now a 60-day consultation period to determine how to best implement the proposal, and the impact it will have on businesses —and about 480,000 women employees in the federal labour force. We asked her why this initiative is so important, and what everyone can do to help.
How big of an issue is this with respect to women in the workplace?
Well, we know for certain that women menstruate and that it definitely happens in the workplace. And I think most, if not all women have experienced unexpected menstruation. Those situations can be stressful and humiliating, especially in a male dominated work environment. Women in an unexpected situation like that are faced with having to improvise, leave work and find a drug store, or ask colleagues if they can borrow a tampon or a pad. Providing access to free menstrual products for those situations supports better workplace productivity and addresses issues of dignity in the workplace. Plus, a 2018 Plan Canada International survey found that one third of Canadian women under the age of 25 struggle to afford menstrual products, while 70% have missed work or school, or have withdrawn from social activities because of their period. Having these conversations will ultimately help reduce the stigma around periods which continues to persist despite the progress we have made towards gender equality.
What brought your attention to this issue? Why is this something you are passionate about supporting?
There is small but growing movement across Canada and in other countries that is calling for better access to menstrual products. I think of the United Way’s campaign in British Columbia, then the New Westminster school district that unanimously passed a motion proposed by Douglas College professor Selina Tribe to provide free menstrual products in all its schools. I had a chance to meet Dr. Tribe in Vancouver this past winter and was so inspired by her dedication to this cause.
It was great to see the B.C. provincial government take similar action and mandate that its public schools provide free menstrual products for students. In Ontario, in my colleague MP Peter Fragiskatos’ riding of London, Ontario, a call from Rachel Ettinger of Virgin Radio led to city councillors unanimously backing a motion to put menstrual products in the washrooms of all their public facilities. And the examples don’t stop there!
I wondered what I could do within my portfolio of Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour to amplify the work of these leaders. Through changes in the regulations of the Labour Code, we are able to require that employers provide free menstrual products in federally regulated sectors. I look forward to the consultations and the changes that will result for women in federal workplaces across all sectors.
Menstruation is a fact of life — but it’s also considered a taboo subject. Tell me more about how this can remove some of the stigma and embarrassment surrounding menstruation.
We have started a consultation period with Canadians and employers that will prompt more conversations about menstruation. Our society has stigmatized conversations about menstruation. Many people feel very uncomfortable talking about this. Think of all the code names that we have assigned to this very normal and regular occurrence in women’s lives. ‘Getting a visit from Aunt Flo’, for example. It is time to talk openly about menstruation as a normal bodily function. Products like toilet paper, hand soap, and paper towel are already provided in washrooms. To me, this is no different. A woman does not decide when her period starts — ensuring free menstrual products in bathrooms indicates that female bodily functions are a natural part of life.
“It is time to talk openly about menstruation as a normal bodily function. Products like toilet paper, hand soap, and paper towel are already provided in washrooms. To me, this is no different.”
Do you have any concerns about pushback?
It’s normal for employers to have concerns when we make changes to workplaces’ requirements. That’s why it will be important to have a fulsome conversation during the consultation process and carefully consider how we implement this to get the goal of dignity for women in the workplace while also doing so in a cost effective way. Every workplace is different and we want to be sure that we get it right before changing the regulations. Other than that, whenever we ask people to have new conversations, things can be a bit uncomfortable at first. But I have been pleased to hear so much support from a variety of stakeholders, politicians and of course women, who say it’s time to address this inequity.
Is there any way individuals can help move this initiative forward?
Canadians across the country can be our partners in this quest! The more we talk about menstrual products and the more we consider how society has stigmatized menstruation, the more opportunity for change we will see. It will take many people to keep this movement going, but I am confident that Canadians are up for it.