It’s no secret that low wages and terrible working conditions form the dark underbelly of world’s biggest fashion brands such as H&M, GAP, Tommy Hilfiger, neither is the fact that globally, a majority of these workers are women. Coincidence? Hardly. India employs 45 million such workers in its Textile and Garment Industry, 60-75% of whom are women. It’s a shame then that working conditions here too, are notoriously dehumanising, especially if looked through the lens of “MHM.”
For those wondering, MHM or Menstrual Hygiene Management as defined in 2012 by a Joint Monitoring Program of the WHO and UNICEF is, “Women and adolescent girls using a clean menstrual management material to absorb or collect menstrual blood, that can be changed in privacy as often as necessary for the duration of a menstrual period, using soap and water for washing the body as required, and having access to facilities to dispose of used menstrual management materials.”
For the women who toil for hours on an end in these factories every day, expecting a clean bathroom to change their pads, cloth or tattered rags, along with enough time and privacy to do so seems fundamental, right?
Well, not if the head honchos running an industry that contributes a whopping 2.3 percent to its GDP are asked. Ironically, factories of this flourishing industry are not even equipped with basic amenities required for effective menstrual hygiene management, forcing us to believe that either they have forgotten that women bleed or don’t really care about the basic rights and dignity of their female workers. There are very few toilets with inadequate facilities and often left deliberately dirty so that workers are too disgusted to use it and focus on more important things instead—meeting targets.
It does not end here. There is lack of access to cost effective hygiene products and no place to safely dump them. Forget this, running and clean water to wash their body is also unavailable and there is no privacy to change their pads/menstrual cloth without the looming fear of voyeurism! Rubbing salt on their wounds are the skyrocketing expectations of these fancy, big brands who are constantly pressuring suppliers to produce faster and cheaper, pushing the labourers to work longer and harder, without breaks for lunch, rest or even a chance to go to the toilet. This not only severely affects the needs of menstruating women but also is a blatant violation of standards set by the ILO.
Women workers, out of fear and poverty, resort to unhygienic options such as using old, dirty rags discarded in the factories, ash, newspaper, hay, sand or even cow dung—anything that is easily available without burning a hole in their shallow pockets. They continue to wear the same absorbent for hours which more often than not leads to bacterial infections, urinary, reproductive diseases significantly contributing to reproductive health morbidity. So every time of the month, the women have to grapple with mental, emotional and physical stress which try as they may, reflects poorly on their performance at work. Somehow that brunt is theirs to bear because any small lapse results in further physical or verbal abuse, wage cut and some even lose their jobs.
Unfortunately, since the garment industry is majorly an informal sector with some exceptions, the workers cannot do much about it as their rights to association and representation are virtually absent. Women here are especially at a disadvantaged position because the leadership is dominated by men, leaving them with weak bargaining powers and in a position where they are easily replaceable. Due to this, on one hand, they are afraid to raise their voices against the cruelty met out to them and on the other, due to the stigma attached to menstruation, they are unable to express their problems to their male supervisors. Women who are menstruating are often victims of abusive slurs and humiliating remarks which makes it even more difficult for them to seek respite in instances of sickness and weakness experienced during periods.
Through a report published by Thomson Reuters in June in 2019, based on interviews of 100 women working in Tamil Nadu’s multi-billion dollar garment industry, it was found that all of them were given unlabelled drugs at work for period pains, and it was admitted by half of them that they suffered the side effects of this on their health. They were never informed of potential damages and experienced depression, anxiety, urinary tract infections, fibroids and miscarriages.
Recently, we see a growing emphasis on conversations about menstrual health and hygiene. It is further complemented by the fact that the pandemic is forcing big fashion labels to move towards practices that are slow and sustainable, not run on constantly changing trends which force the supply chain to work at a breakneck speed.
Using this opportune moment, the global garment sector that contributes two percent to the world’s GDP can drive change regarding MHM at a large scale—which in turn, could have a huge impact on environment, economic and social issues. If in these trying times, the female dominated sector is serious about improving labour rights while also boosting profits all the way up from the bottom line, it needs to focus on improving WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) for its workers throughout the supply chain and make effective Menstrual Hygiene Management a reality.
Anahita Mehra holds a Bachelor’s in English literature and is currently pursuing Law at Delhi University. Her areas of research interests include human rights with a special focus on gender, sustainable development and the law. A writer at heart, she uses her free time trying to invoke sensitivity and compassion in people towards self and the world through poetry and prose that oscillates between self love and pertinent social issues. You can find her on Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Featured Image Source: The Economist