Ukrainian Women on the Polish Labour Market. What Can Employers Do?

War will not stop menstruation. To the contrary – it can only exacerbate the level of menstrual poverty in our country. Like all women, Ukrainians fleeing to Poland need access to hygiene products, too. This imposes new responsibilities on their future employers.

Menstrual poverty is not only a problem for underdeveloped countries. Polish women, too, struggle with the lack of access to proper hygiene products: menstrual pads, tampons or menstrual cups. Experts estimate this happened to one in five of us.

According to a survey commissioned by the Kulczyk Foundation, as many as 55 percent of women admit they got their period unexpectedly at least once, when they were not prepared for it. One in three respondents, having no personal hygiene products of their own, asked other women for them. One in 10 women took time off work or school because of it.

In addition, menstruation is still a taboo topic in many communities and groups, especially at work. As many as 73 percent of women hide a sanitary pad or tampon on their way to the bathroom. And when the topic is eventually brought up in the office, it is most often trivialised, ridiculed or – at best – brushed away with embarrassing silence.

Urgent need for menstrual pads

When you look at the suffering of millions of Ukrainian men and women, it is hard to think about menstrual poverty. The reality, however, is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will deepen the problem further, also in Poland. Having travelled in rough conditions, nearly 2.7 million refugees, mostly women with children, have already crossed the Polish border. Having little choice but to flee an invasion and air raids, missile attacks and artillery barrages, these women took only the most indispensable things with them. Pads and tampons? Who would even think of them at a time like that?

Since the war began, Polish women and men have joined in solidarity to help their neighbours. They have been organising charities, and there are 24-hour reception points at the border. The reception points offer hot meals, places to rest, access to basic health care and hygiene product to those in need. Menstrual pads are going fast, and the needs are still huge.

Importantly, not only reception points need menstrual hygiene products but also refugee information centres, organisers of aid at train stations and community organisations supporting women fleeing Ukraine. Sanitary pads are one of the most urgent needs now and they will remain so later on, once Ukrainian women feel safe in Poland.

Toilet paper is evident in restrooms but where are the tampons?

Studies on menstruation indicate that in many countries, including Poland, women have to choose between buying menstrual pads and essential products. Some of them give up a more expensive and more comfortable product in favour of cheaper ones that are insufficiently absorbent or made of inferior materials.

In just one menstrual cycle, women need many products: panty liners, day and night pads, tampons. All this costs money. And the costs grow when the family includes not only the mother but also daughters who start menstruating.

The solution to menstrual poverty is – first and foremost – sex education offered from an early age. It will break the menstruation taboo, provide thorough education about the reproductive cycle (also for boys), and ensure universal and free access to hygiene products in schools and workplaces. If restrooms are supplied with toilet paper or paper towels, why not also have menstrual pads and tampons?

Employers can play a huge role in combating the issue of menstrual poverty. In fact, menstruation as a natural physiological process affects half of the workforce on average. Sometimes all it takes to create a friendly workplace for all employees is to provide them with access to hygiene products and give them an opportunity to speak openly about their needs, including those related to menstrual health.

Today, ‘all employees also applies to Ukrainians. According to estimates by the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, tens of thousands of Ukrainian women have already been hired in Poland.

Their successful adaptation in new workplaces is guided not only by individual efforts of employers, but also by nationwide campaigns and programmes. The Career Cycle campaign is based on education focused on the topic of menstruation as well as the implementation of a number of low-cost changes.

From small step to huge change

Changes suggested by the campaign organisers include, for example, ensuring access to proper hygiene products (tampons and menstrual pads). For companies, the costs involved are not high. A company that employs 15 women, needs 46 products (23 sanitary pads and 23 tampons) to make sure the ladies are protected on the first unexpected day of their period. It only costs PLN 20 to purchase them. To provide a full supply (for more than the first day of menstruation), around 150 products are needed, which involves an expenditure of about PLN 65. Please note, however, that such consumption of sanitary pads or tampons at work is rare.

Women also need unrestrained access to toilets, where they are free to change their menstrual products at any time. It also is a big help to provide a waste bin in every stall.

Another important change – though definitely more difficult – is building a menstruation-friendly culture in which all employees are actively engaged regardless of their gender. Some employees may be shocked by the very appearance of menstrual products in restrooms, but it is also an important part of raising awareness about menstruation.  The team is then one step away from having a conversation about the needs of menstruating people in the workplace, maybe even arranging a workshop on health, including menstrual health, with specialists.

The final thing is to plan your working hours properly. Some women may suffer from problems that can eliminate them from the processional flow for some time. Others may be struggling with endometriosis, PMS (premenstrual syndrome) or PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) and need time off for a doctor’s appointment or sick leave.

Sometimes a small thing observed by the employer can turn out to be an important element of an employee’s life, and not just their professional existence. Which – in the context of tens of thousands of Ukrainians entering our labour market – is even more important.