• Manisha Mallik

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).