Is It Time to Implement Menstrual Leave in Malaysia?
When the Spanish cabinet approved a bill granting paid menstrual leave for women suffering from severe period pain, it was a win for working women across the globe. With it, Spain also became the first European country to push such legislation. However, perhaps unknown to many, menstrual leave is actually already available in a few Asian countries such as Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea. As such, one can’t help but ask, is it time to implement menstrual leave in Malaysia?
As employers explore various benefits to include in their incentive packages, it’s worth looking at this forward-looking policy. According to the 2021 World Bank Group data, women comprise 38.5% of Malaysia’s labour force. As such, providing more women-centric incentives can help boost these numbers and make female workers feel more valued.
Is menstrual leave a thing?
Before we explore the possibility of implementing menstrual leave in Malaysia, let’s first identify what it is. This type of leave allows women to take a paid or unpaid leave from work due to dysmenorrhea (menstruation-related pain) or discomfort. Periods can cause severe cramps, emotional problems, and other health issues which can affect women’s ability to work.
With such a law in place, women will no longer feel forced to work when they are in pain due to a valid health concern. While it’s mainly seen as a sign of progress in the topic of women’s rights, there are also opposing views that cast doubt on women’s efficiency at work. The fact that menstruation has remained a taboo in some developing countries also makes discussions on menstrual leave extra challenging.
Which countries have menstrual leaves in Asia?
Despite the presence of menstrual leave in some Asian countries, women still remain hesitant to use it. To help us understand why, let’s take a look at the current status of this type of leave in Asia.
Japan According to Article 68 of Japan’s Labour Standards Act, "When a woman for whom work during menstrual periods would be especially difficult has requested to leave, the Employer shall not have said woman work on days of said menstrual period.” This rule has been in effect for 75 years, with employers’ discretion to grant time off by calendar day, half-day, or by the hour. Female workers do not need to present medical documentation and can simply request to file menstrual leave.
However, while women are allowed to file for leave, they are not entitled to paid leave or extra pay when they choose to work during their period. According to Yumiko Murakami, head of the Tokyo Center Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), companies also don’t typically announce menstrual leave, so some women may not even be aware that it’s available to them.
Many Japanese women are also reluctant to use this leave since it would involve telling their managers – who are typically male – that they were on their period. It’s still a private matter, and a taboo even, for women to talk about menstruation with any men. In fact, a 2017 government survey revealed that only 0.9% of women used their period leave.
South Korea Meanwhile, in South Korea, female employees are entitled to one-day unpaid leave for menstrual pains every month. They also get additional pay for unused menstrual leave credits, as per Article 71 of the Labour Standards Law. This has been in effect since 2001. However, as with the case in Japan, there are also fewer and fewer takers. Only 23.6% of women used the leave in 2013, and by 2017, it dropped to 19.7%.
Much like their Japanese counterparts, South Korean women are also reluctant to avail of this leave, given the male-dominant workplaces in the country. They also feel sorry for leaving an extra burden on their co-workers while they’re on leave. In some cases, their workplaces are also short-staffed, making it impossible for them to take time off despite their period pains.
A report from The Korea Times mentions several serious challenges to menstrual leave in the country. Employers who violate this law can face up to two years in prison, or pay a fine of up to 10 million won. However, companies are still generally unwelcoming of the idea of women taking the day off due to painful periods. As such, many women are not made aware of their right to this leave. Then, there’s also the problem of menstrual leave being a foreign concept for many male bosses, who believe women can just take painkillers if necessary.
Taiwan The Act of Gender Equality in Employment enacted in 2002 entitles Taiwanese women to three days of menstrual leave per year. These are separate from the statutory 30 days of regular sick leave, and additional menstrual leaves will be counted as sick leave.
Female employees are not required to provide any documentation to avail of the leave. There is also no age limit to employee eligibility, so even older women can also take a day off as necessary. However, they can only take one day off in a given month, and receive only 50% of their pay while on menstrual leave.
Employers may not refuse, issue a penalty, or cite the period day off as an absence that affects the attendance bonus or performance evaluation of the employee.
A 2011 study conducted by the Taiwan Journal of Public Health found that participants “did not understand the regulations about menstrual leave such as how to apply for it or how to use it.” They also mentioned that the regulation offered no flexibility, they didn’t know anyone who ever availed of it, and their workplaces asked for medical receipts if they wanted to apply for it. As a result, they seldom used their menstrual leaves.
Indonesia Article 81 of the Labour Law of Indonesia entitles female workers to two days of paid leave for the first and second day of their menstruation. However, this provision is practised under the discretion of the employer.
A 2003 International Labour Organization report stated that the total of 24 menstrual leaves on top of 12 days of annual leaves “represents a significant cost to many employers.” This explains why many employers only allow only one day of menstrual leave, or even no day off at all. On top of this, they may also choose to “discriminate against women in their hiring policy.”
Why menstrual leave is not popular in Asia
While the question “Is menstrual leave a thing?” may be surprising in this day and age, the fact remains that menstrual leave is uncommon in Asia. Based on the current state of this type of leave, we can identify five main reasons behind it.
Talking about menstruation remains taboo in many Asian countries. Asian culture remains conservative when it comes to matters like menstruation or reproductive health. As such, most female workers aren’t comfortable disclosing – especially to male co-workers and bosses – that they are on their period, even when they are experiencing severe pain because of it.
Lack of understanding from male co-workers and managers. Women are also reluctant to talk about dysmenorrhea and ask for menstrual leave because they believe that their male colleagues and bosses will not understand them. Period pain remains a foreign concept for many Asian males, who tend to believe that painkillers are enough and taking the day off is unnecessary.
Companies do not properly and adequately inform their female employees about menstrual leaves. For the reasons stated above, it becomes easy for many Asian companies to not inform their female employees about menstrual leave benefits altogether. Even in countries where it’s strictly mandatory, they also find a way to make the application process complicated, further discouraging women from availing of the leave.
Female employees do not want to burden their co-workers with extra work in their absence. For many female employees in Asia, their companies are either understaffed or they are too busy to take a day off. As such, they opt to not use their menstrual leaves even if they know they have the right to do so. They know that when they take the day off, someone else in the team has to pick up their tasks. So, they’d rather bear the period pain than the guilt of burdening their co-workers with more work.
Menstrual leave becomes a reason for female workers to be discriminated against. But most, if not all the reasons above and it all boils down to one big problem: gender discrimination in the workplace. Despite the severe pain and discomfort, female workers opt out of their menstrual leave benefits because they don’t want to be seen as weak, lazy, or entitled.
Admittedly, Asia’s labour law provisions on menstrual leave aren’t perfect. However, this benefit that advocates for women’s health should not paint female workers as weak, entitled, or incompetent. Dysmenorrhea is a real medical condition, and it can be debilitating for menstruating women regardless of age. Female workers who experience this condition typically struggle to concentrate and function well at work. Symptoms such as abdominal cramps, lower back pain, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue make a lot of activities difficult for women on their period.
Instead, hirers and managers should view menstrual leave as an integral part of a holistic benefit package and employee engagement. It sends the message that they take the overall health and wellness of their female employees seriously. This, in turn, makes female employees feel more secure, valued, and happy in the workplace. As we all know, healthy and happy employees perform better at work.
While menstrual leave in Malaysia is yet to pass legislation, the HR Ministry is actively encouraging companies to start implementing it on their own. Malaysian companies can take note of current models in other countries to create their own menstrual leave policies. Hiring managers can use them to make small steps that will eventually lead to a more progressive company culture!
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