Since Unite’s Period Dignity campaign national launch last September, the initiative has seen a series of successes among business both small and large, including just last week aerospace giant Rolls-Royce, which signed up to the campaign globally. In part 4 of our #HeartUnions series, we take a look back at how Unite’s Period Dignity campaign all got started.
So many of the rights, protections and provisions most people take for granted seem now entirely natural, embedded in our lives as mere facts – we assume that most jobs will entail a weekend or rest days; office buildings will be wheelchair accessible; that the lifesaving seatbelts in our cars were always there.
But if you look closer, these did not magically come into being – they were forced by the tireless campaigning of activists and lawmakers who believed in a more just, more equitable world.
This is what Unite’s new Period Dignity campaign is hoping to achieve – that one day, free access to tampons and pads in workplaces will be as unremarkable as free toilet paper.
“We wanted to campaign against period poverty but we wanted to go beyond this and make it a workplace campaign too,” explained Unite regional officer Suzanne Reid.
Suzanne is leading Unite’s Period Dignity campaign, which started in the North East Yorkshire and Humberside region but is now being rolled out nationwide.
“We’re aiming to make free sanitary products in workplaces the norm,” Suzanne explained. “One colleague of mine put it brilliantly – men don’t always use toilet paper but I bet they’re glad it’s widely available when they do need it. The same should be true for female workers. Women don’t always need to use tampons or pads but they should be there for them when they do – it’s that simple.”
She told UniteLive that the union is setting its sights even higher with its Period Dignity campaign. “We want to change the entire conversation around periods,” she said. “No one should have to scurry off secretly to the toilet or feel embarrassed. Unite believes that by changing perceptions we can tackle some of the wider issues around periods and ensure that no woman or girl faces period poverty.”
The number of young women who cannot afford to buy sanitary products is shocking – a Plan International UK survey found one in 10 girls or women aged 14 to 21 are unable to afford sanitary products.
Unite is fully supportive of campaigns to tackle period poverty but Suzanne explained why Unite chose to go beyond affordability.
“Period poverty campaigns, which are in themselves absolutely crucial, may focus on, for example, donating sanitary products to food banks. We at Unite are seeking to complement this work because we believe we shouldn’t limit the conversation to affordability.
“Access to sanitary products should be a right. There are many instances when women may be ‘caught short’ that aren’t related to affordability – take for example women who are going through menopause but may still occasionally have a ‘surprise’ period.”
Unite’s Period Dignity campaign had its first major success in September after Rolls-Royce Washington in Sunderland signed up to the campaign’s charter and has agreed to offer free sanitary products at no costs in its toilets.
“In today’s world no woman should feel uncomfortable about menstruation,” said Unite convenor at Rolls-Royce Washington Gary Andrews. “It has been a taboo subject for too many years.”
Female staff at Rolls-Royce Washington were thrilled by the company’s support.
“I think it’s great that Rolls-Royce is supporting Unite’s Period Dignity campaign,” said Unite member Alice Fletcher. “I know that I never need to feel embarrassed or ashamed about being on my period at work.”
Her colleague Sarah Turnbull agreed. “It’s reassuring to know that we’ll have supplies available if we’re ever in need as it can be a genuine cause for concern.”
Rolls-Royce has now committed to signing up to the charter not only nationally but globally as well so that now every Rolls-Royce site in 50 countries across the world will have free sanitary products in their toilets.
Other employers have signed up as well including leisure contractor Everyone Active, Nexus, Morrish Solicitors and Thompsons Solicitors, while many more businesses have shown interest.
“What we’ve seen is our members have approached their employers on a local level, and then as in the case of Rolls Royce and Everyone Active, they’ve taken it to a national level and even global level,” Reid explained. “And what started as a Unite initiative is also being supported by the TUC and other unions.”
Unite’s Period Dignity campaign had its official national launch at the Labour Party conference last September. Unite regional secretary Karen Reay hailed Labour’s support.
“The response to our campaign has been nothing but absolutely positive,” Karen said. “It’s one of those campaigns we know will be a win from the very beginning. It’s a campaign that many think – why hasn’t anyone done this before? Now we’re just looking to take it to the next level.”
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, who attended the launch alongside London mayor Sadiq Khan as well as other MPs and Labour Party attendees, praised the Unite campaign. “This is a truly grassroots campaign that will take root and will spread like wildfire throughout the whole country,” Len said.
Suzanne added that Unite will not let up in the fight against the Tampon Tax – which Labour has committed to ending, while the government has stalled despite its pledge to scrap it in 2016.
“The government has said it will scrap the tax once the UK leaves the EU but we aren’t holding our breath,” Suzanne said. “It is an outrage that sanitary products are classified as ‘luxury items’ while cream cakes are deemed to be ‘essential’.”
Unite national officer Siobhan Endean hailed Unite’s Period Dignity campaign as part of the wider fight for women’s
“Period dignity is essential to health and well-being at work,” she said. “Women workers should have access to women’s toilets, to regular breaks, with sanitary protection provided in all women’s toilets.
“The Period Dignity campaign is part of Unite’s wider campaigning for decent pay and conditions for women at work. The best way to get a pay rise is through collective bargaining. We say to all working women – join us!”
Find out more about Unite’s Period Dignity campaign and how you can get your employer to sign up here.