Unite member Lily Chasteau, 24, knows that even in the 21st century, some topics of conversation are still considered off-limits.
“A friend of mine started her period when we were 14 and she felt too afraid to talk to her step-mother about it,” she recalls. “I remember giving her balled up tissues.”
It’s not just the silence of teenagers that persists – menstruation continues to be a taboo subject in homes, workplaces and schools up and down the country.
But Unite is hoping to break this silence through its period dignity campaign, which aims to persuade employers to offer free sanitary products in their women’s and disabled toilets.
Unite celebrated a major win last week, when Rolls-Royce agreed to sign up to the union’s period dignity charter globally so that now every one of its sites in 50 countries around the world will have toilets stocked with free pads and tampons.
But Unite is winning period dignity for its members on a local level too – most recently thanks to the efforts of young Lily, who works as a waitress in Teignmouth in Devon at the Oystercatcher’s Cafe.
Lily – who joined Unite only a year ago but has become actively involved in the union, most recently as vice chair of Unite’s South West young members’ committee – first heard about period poverty campaigns on social media.
“I was familiar with the issues surrounding lack of access to sanitary products for women and girls who cannot afford them,” she explained. “When I attended a Unite young leadership conference, I learned about Unite’s latest period dignity campaign and thought it’s something that could be introduced in my workplace.”
Lily’s bosses at Oystercatcher’s Café were immediately supportive of the campaign and now both staff and customers can avail themselves of free sanitary products in the cafe’s toilets.
“Staff were really in favour of the idea, especially considering that the majority of my colleagues are women,” Lily said.
Customers, too, have welcomed the initiative, even though, Lily explained, most of the café’s female clientele are older and post-menopausal.
“The women who come in have said how great they think it is – that they wish the campaign existed when they were younger. And it’s even started conversations about the taboos surrounding menopause, too.”
Lily said she’s thrilled by the success of the campaign at a growing number of workplaces, and believes trade unions such as Unite must take the lead on period dignity.
“At heart, it’s a workplace issue because it affects half of the workforce. Anything that can make women feel more comfortable and more respected in the workplace is an initiative worth pursuing by Unite and other trade unions.”
The most recent of Unite’s period dignity campaign successes comes in time for the TUC’s Heart Unions Week this week, which celebrates the role trade unions play in workplaces and their wider communities.
For Lily, who lives in a community where a tourist-based economy means much of the available work is seasonal and so is often precarious, being part of a union is vital.
“I live in an area where there’s not enough work for young people to keep them here, so many of us end up leaving,” she explained. “It’s very tough to support a family on seasonal, flexible work.
“That’s why being part of a union for young people like me is so important – there’s power in numbers. It gives you that safety net so you feel secure in demanding better pay, terms and conditions. Being part of a community that faces the same issues as me makes me feel strong.”