Campaigners celebrated in 2016 when Parliament first voted to end VAT on sanitary products – the so-called ‘tampon tax’.
But two years later, women across the UK are still waiting for action – the government has said eliminating the 5 per cent VAT on sanitary products, which are currently taxed as ‘luxury items’, is now being stalled at the EU level.
Some progress is certainly being made – in August, the Scottish government announced, in a world first, a new scheme that would make free sanitary products available to students at all schools, colleges and universities in Scotland.
Now, Unite has launched its own campaign to give free access to tampons and pads in workplaces across the UK.
“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.
Reid is leading Unite’s Period Dignity campaign, which started in the North East Yorkshire and Humberside region but is now being rolled out throughout the union.
“We’re aiming to make free sanitary products in workplaces the norm,” Reid 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.”
Reid 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 about menstruation.
“Having a period is a natural process that should never be a source of awkwardness. 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. And more than one in 10 have had to improvise sanitary wear – for example wearing a sock or using toilet paper – because of affordability issues.
Unite is fully supportive of campaigns to tackle period poverty but Reid 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 has had its first major success after Rolls-Royce Washington in Sunderland this week (September 3) 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.
“Unite has encouraged the company to show its support by putting in free sanitary vending machines in all female toilets on the Washington Rolls-Royce campus as well as signing up our site to Unite’s period dignity charter,” he added.
“Unite’s workplace branch at Rolls-Royce Washington is also making a donation to a local women’s charity to help purchase sanitary products for women who are facing period poverty.”
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 and Rolls-Royce worker Alice Fletcher. “I know that I never need to feel embarrassed or ashamed about being on my period at work and I feel confident that I will never be ‘caught short’ with an unexpected period.”
Unite member and Rolls-Royce worker Sarah Turnbull agreed.
“We’re proud that Rolls-Royce North East Campus is the first to sign up to the period dignity campaign and hope other companies soon follow,” she said. “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 and this is sure to save any embarrassment in future. Fingers crossed this gets plenty of attention and the archaic ‘Tampon Tax’ will finally be abolished!”
Reid likewise praised Rolls-Royce’s support and urged other workplaces to follow their lead.
She told UNITElive that beyond workplace campaigning, Unite is also working with the teaching union NASUWT to campaign for free sanitary products for both students at staff at schools. The union is likewise looking to link up with Hey Girls, a company in Scotland that makes a range of environmentally-friendly sanitary products.
Because Hey Girls donates a pack of pads or tampons for every product a customer buys, Unite is hoping workplaces that sign up to the union’s Period Dignity charter will use Hey Girls’ products, in effect tackling period poverty while supplying their workplace.
Reid added that Unite will not let up in the fight against the ‘tampon tax’ either.
“The government has said it will scrap the tax once the UK leaves the EU but we aren’t holding our breath,” Reid said. “It is an outrage that sanitary products are classified as ‘luxury items’ while items like pita bread and 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 equalities.
“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. Unite welcomes Rolls-Royce’s lead in signing up to Unite’s Period Dignity charter and we call on all employers to follow their lead.
“The Period Dignity campaign is part and parcel 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 – women in workplaces across the UK are signing up to Unite’s membership. We say to all working women – join us!”