Managing Menstruation in Textile and Garment Industry of India
Textile Industry is among the dominant traditional industries of India, which employs a large percentage of both skilled and unskilled workers after agriculture (Kumar, 2019). India is the second-largest manufacturer and exporter of textile and garments globally, with a share of 5% of global trade (Gupta, 2020). A 2015 report published by ILO (International Labour Organization) stated, "The textile sector in India contributes about 14 per cent to industrial production, 4 per cent to gross domestic product (GDP), and 27 per cent to the country's foreign exchange inflows". The textile industry directly employs about 4.5 crore people and indirectly engages about six crore people in allied sectors (Gupta, 2020; Insights into working conditions in India’s garment industry, 2015).
India’s Textile and Garment Industry is notorious for its low wages, hazardous workplace, forced child labour, exploitative working hours and no legal protection (Meloot, 2019; Singh, 2021). In an industry where more than 60 per cent (about 35 million women) of the employees are women, can the persistence of such exploitative conditions be coincidental? (Mehra, 2020; Kane, 2014)
MHM or Menstrual Hygiene Management was defined by a Joint Monitoring Programme of WHO and UNICEF in 2012, which aims to help women and adolescent girls to manage their periods efficiently by ensuring accessibility to menstrual products and an adequate environment, even in the workplace, both formal as well as the informal sector. In India, a significant part of the Textile Industry falls under the unorganized informal industry (Kazi, 2019; Mehra, 2020).
The informal condition acts as a major challenge for MHM standards to be maintained due to lack of legal, political or social support, resulting in inadequate access to WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) infrastructure required for menstrual hygiene management at workplaces with continuous water supply, proper washrooms, and wash facilities (Sommer et al., 2016, p.1-3). MHM and WASH not only helps in maintaining hygiene but also increases productivity at the workplace with a healthy working environment for female employees (Mehra, 2020, Sommer).
The Indian Textile Industry tries to deny or ignore the biological differences of women's bodies and the natural monthly process associated with it (Mehra, 2020). The industry neglects menstruation and creates a barrier for its employees to adequately manage menstrual hygiene at the workplace both directly and indirectly. On multiple occasions, female workers in the garment industry have revealed the ordeal the industry puts them through every month. There is no provision for paid leaves, limited or no toilet breaks, lack of privacy, and exploitative work conditions. (Mehra, 2020).
Low wages and lack of awareness regarding appropriate menstrual products play a significant role in why women today use cloths, rags, newspapers, and even hay to manage their menstrual blood (Mehra, 2020). In the garment industry, where the regulation of the Minimum Wage Act is not followed, and employees are provided with living wages, female employees cannot afford sanitary napkins even if they are aware of genuine menstrual products.
The shame, stigma, and menstruation go hand-in-hand in India. This, coupled with the patriarchal hierarchy in a management team, makes it uncomfortable and unreachable for menstruators to convey to the male supervisor about their ordeals. Menstruators are unable to seek leave or adequate menstrual facilities in the industry. This gender power gap acts as an inhibitor for female workers to raise their voices against the structure and to have basic minimum facilities (Mehra, 2020).
The Textile Industry appoints a ‘timekeeper’ (commonly a man) to track the engagement (bathroom breaks, lunch hours) and productivity level of each worker (Gor, 2020). Women employees frequently find themselves being subject to public humiliation by the supervisors for frequent usage of washrooms, even during periods (Meloot, 2019). This puts employees in a position where they have no choice but to tolerate and continue working with a wet piece of cloth (Gor, 2020). According to the Indian Labour Laws and TN Factories Rules (1950), there should be one toilet for every 20 workers, but hardly such regulations are adhered to (Gor, 2020).
Productivity overtakes employees care; according to the interviews done by Thomson Reuters Foundation (2019) with the women workers of Tamil Nadu's garment industry revealed that pills were given to the workers during the time of menstruation to easing off their period pain so that they can sustain 10 hours of long working shifts. The pills were not provided by any medical professional but by the supervisors with no medical knowledge (Nagaraj, 2019). The distribution of drugs without a doctor's prescription is illegal and against the labour laws; nevertheless, the pills were distributed to control absenteeism during menstruation and enhance productivity (Nagaraj, 2019).
Many women shared that they choose to rely on the pills rather than getting their wage cut for taking a leave from work (Nagaraj, 2019). It took them years to understand the effects of the pills, which caused physical health problems like abnormal discharge, delay in periods, Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) and miscarriages but also negatively affected the mental health of the employees (Nagaraj, 2019; Mehra, 2020).
Poor infrastructure, shame and stigma, gender power dynamics, period poverty, lack of awareness, low wages, and 'productivity-profits over employee' mindset hinder managing menstruation in the textile industry.
The lack of awareness, education, poor socio-economic structure, myths and taboos within the structure and culture may impact worker's emotional state, mentality, lifestyle and mental health due to period poverty in the textile industry. (Garg, 2015; Sommer et. al, 2016). However, mental health and menstruation are taboo in India, only to be talked about when circumstances become crucial (Dombrowski, 2019).
In the textile industry, lack of adequate menstrual infrastructure and use of unhygienic menstrual products may cause serious chronic health and gynaecological afflictions such as UTI, bacterial infection, and reproductive tract infection, which may result in surgery and even morbidity (Mehra, 2020). Women are afraid to use changing rooms during menstruation due to lack of privacy, often the reason for sexual harassment in the workplace (Meloot, 2019).
According to Sommer et al. (2016), lack of a supportive environment for menstrual hygiene at the workplace "may lead to anxiety and stress, and in turn, reduce concentration and productivity". Poor MHM and WASH facilities may act as a barrier to productivity at work along with increased absenteeism. An inadequate working environment may hinder women's contribution as it disturbs mental, physical, and emotional well-being, sometimes affecting health and absenteeism (Sommer et al, 2016). Whereas, positive MHM impacts economic and social issues positivity as healthy workspaces ensure the overall well-being of its employees, reduce absenteeism, and availability of labourers, resulting in boosting profits (Mehra, 2020).
As stated by Gor (2020), “The primary destinations of India’s garment exports are the United States and the European Union, which receive almost half of the country’s total apparel exports. However, due to distance and abstraction, western consumers aren’t even aware that period poverty in garment factories put women’s health at risk in India”.
The Indian Textile and Garment Industry lay down a perfect instance of patriarchal attitude (Mehra, 2020; Meloot, 2019). It is surprising to witness how an industry comprising of maximum women workforce lacks a basic policy to support their dignity and health, as it is ultimately controlled and supervised by male supremacy. Lack of MHM is equivalent to the degradation of human rights; it violates the right to dignity and right to health of the menstruators in the workplace.
The main concern of the textile and garment industry revolves around higher productivity. Thus, the priority is on greater and cheaper productivity, often resulting in inhumane working conditions and an unhealthy working environment (Mehra, 2020). The industry must work with the times, with technology upgrades, proper training, and being more mindful of their human resources.
Although the Ministry of Textile Industry, along with other governmental and Non-governmental organizations, are trying to bring about a positive change in the working environment of the Indian Textile Industry, at the same time, the topic of menstruation and menstrual hygiene in the Textile Industry remains an untouched issue (Singh, 2021). Apart from the government, several non-governmental organizations and CSR activities are focusing on improving the MHM and WASH facilities within various industries, including the Indian textile and garment industry.
As stated before majority composition of the Indian textile industry are women; thus, creating a gender-inclusive environment and managing menstrual hygiene in this women dominated industry will set an example for other industries to create a healthy environment for women workers within the workplace.
Please note that BeyondBlood and the author are committed to using inclusive language. The gendered terminology in this blog is from quoting the literature on menstrual health which still remains very gendered.
Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) Guidelines and implementation Framework. https://sujal-swachhsangraha.gov.in/sites/default/files/Bihar-MHM-guidelines-web.pdf
Garg, S., & Anand, T. (2015). Menstruation related myths in India: strategies for combating it. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, 4 (2), 184-186. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4408698/
Gor, P. (2020, November 1). Fashionable Flow: Menstrual Hygiene of Garment Workers in India. Fashion Revolution. https://www.fashionrevolution.org/usa-blog/menstrual-hygiene-of-garment-workers-in-india/
International Labour Organization (2015). Insights into working conditions in India's garment industry. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---declaration/documents/publication/wcms_379775.pdf
Kane, G. (2014). Facts on India’s Garment Industry. Clean Clothes Campaign. https://cleanclothes.org/resources/publications/factsheets/india-factsheet-february-2015.pdf
Kazi, N.S. (2019). Cloth Production in India- A Sector Analysis. Textile Value Chain. https://textilevaluechain.in/in-depth-analysis/articles/textile-articles/cloth-production-in-india-sector-analysis/
Kumar, R. (2019). GST on Apparel Sector. Tax Guru. https://taxguru.in/goods-and-service-tax/gst-apparel-sector.html
Mehra, A. (2020, June 3). How Difficult Is Menstrual Hygiene Management For Women Workers In Indian Textile Industry. Feminism in India. https://feminisminindia.com/2020/06/03/menstrual-hygiene-management-women-workers-indian-textile-industry/
Meloot, S. (2019, May 1). Apparel factories ban toilet breaks to maximise production: HRW. Indian Flash. https://indianf.com/apparel-factories-ban-toilet-breaks-to-maximise-production-hrw/
Nagaraj, A. (2019, June 12). Indian factories found endangering seamstresses' health with illegal pills. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-textiles-women-abuse-idUSKCN1TD00T
Singh, S. (2021, April 5). In India’s informal economy, crores of women face gender bias and insecurity. Scroll.in. https://scroll.in/article/990984/in-indias-informal-economy-crores-of-women-face-gender-bias-and-insecurity
Sommer, M., Chandraratna, S., Cavill, S., Mahon, T., & Howard, P.P. (2016). Managing menstruation in the workplace: an overlooked issue in low- and middle-income countries. International Journal for Equity in Health, 15(86), 1-5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4895811/
WSSCC. Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) Guidelines and implementation Framework. https://sujal-swachhsangraha.gov.in/sites/default/files/Bihar-MHM-guidelines-web.pdf