By Jung Min-ho, Kim Bo-eun, Bahk Eun-jiFemale workers are entitled to take one day off for menstrual pains every month but few dare to exercise that right in male-dominant workplaces here. The reality they face is harsh. They need to muster tremendous courage to tell their male bosses they will use sick leave for period cramps.Ko Jae-hee, who has been teaching mathematics for three years at a middle school in Anyang, Gyeonggi province, said that female teachers never use the menstrual leave even though they know they are entitled to it. "We're simply too busy to take a day off. We have so many daily tasks to deal with. Most schools are short handed. If one of us takes a day off, it's almost impossible to cover his or her job," said Ko. She said female teachers are terribly reluctant to exercise their right, not because they don't want to, but because they feel sorry for the extra burden their co-workers have to shoulder in their absence. "Unlike the situation in North America like Canada, Korea doesn't have a well-designed institutional system that provides substitute teachers. The employment system at most schools is inefficient and too rigid here," Ko said.This case is similar at other male-dominant workplaces. In Korea, women at companies with employees of more than 100 take up less than 1 percent of executives, according to a recent survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.Yoon Jin-sung, a 28-year-old women working at a company where the vast majority of employees are male, said she feels guilty whenever she asks for menstrual leave. "Every time I ask for the time off, I feel guilty for my co-workers since I know they have to do share my work," she said.Yoon and many other female employees point out the need for greater public awareness about why female workers need menstrual leave."I don't think my male colleagues understand the pain we have to go through during our period. Without such an understanding or a solid system that guarantees that right, I think most of us would rather bite the bullet by taking medicine, which I do all the time to relieve my pain," Yoon said. "I don't want to be perceived as receiving privileges just because I am a woman. But it's not a privilege at all. We need an environment where we can use the leave when we need to."Article 71 of the Korea Labor Standards Law states that female employees are entitled to one day menstrual leave per month. It came into effect in 2001 but many female employees are still unaware of what it even means. "Few female colleagues in my office know that they are eligible for menstrual leave," said Kim In-hye, a 31-year-old bank teller in Seoul.Working at the bank for over five years, Kim said no one has told her she is allowed to take one-day's leave if she has a painful period. She said she has never seen anyone use that right. Obstacles still high Menstrual leave is still an alien idea for many male workers as witnessed in a controversy ignited earlier this month when the head of a men's rights group posted remarks critical of it online."You (Korean women) should be ashamed of yourselves. Why are you making such a fuss about menstruating when the nation's birthrate is the lowest in the world?" posted Sung Jae-gi, head of Man of Korea, on his Twitter account on Oct. 3. "You say women are the social minority? All of that is delusional," wrote Sung, adding that the Korean society's excessive consideration toward women creates reverse discrimination against men. The verbal war has been all over Sung's Twitter account, with some male supporters supporting his view on the issue while his crude words have infuriated women across the nation. Some male workers demand that clearer criteria be set up for the implementation of the menstrual leave."The crux of the issue lies in whether we have clear criteria on who deserves menstrual leave because some women certainly don't," said 27-year-old businessman Kim Hyun-min. "What about the women who do not have a period? For instance, do menopausal, pregnant and women with irregular periods also deserve a monthly break?" Kim said that question has to be answered because it is about a privilege and there are always people who find loopholes to take advantage of systems, while non-recipients of the leave have to do additional work for nothing. "I understand the system was initiated with good intentions. However, things that start with a good motive do not always guarantee good results," Kim said.Providing money as compensation is also unreasonable, Kim said, referring to some companies that do not allow menstrual leave but give extra money to female employees at the end of a year. According to a recent survey of 20,121 workers at hospitals and other medical facilities, conducted by their union, about 85 percent of the respondents don't use menstrual leave. Legitimacy of right to rest Under the current law, when an employee requests menstrual leave, the employer is required to grant it and all females have the right regardless of job status or how long they have worked for. It is simple as that. Employers who violate this law are subject to up to two years in prison or a fine of up to 10 million won.It is meant to save women from having to work while suffering from menstrual cramps. However, the efficacy of the law remains doubtful. Thus, the menstrual leave is now under citizens' scrutiny, while the government is turning a blind eye to it.
"Menstrual leave was devised to protect motherhood," said Bae Jin-kyung, general secretary of the Korean Women Workers Association. "For the sake of women's health, menstrual leave is definitely necessary. Women oftentimes suffer from excruciating pain during their period, with some even showing symptoms of depression."
However, she said that because the leave is unpaid, women are reluctant to use it and companies do not welcome the idea of women taking the day off.
"Men simply say that women can endure the pain and if necessary, they can take painkillers. But they are unable to fully grasp the issue of menstruation since it is something they will never be able to experience," Kim said.
"Also, some men point out that only a few countries in Asia have the system and most Western countries don't have it and therefore that it is unnecessary. However, Western countries have far better well-designed vacation policies which tailor to the needs of its employees," she said.
For women in those countries, there is no need for them to even inform the company that they have menstrual cramps, since the companies allow paid leave for any sort of sickness, Kim added.
The law is also practiced in Indonesia and Japan. While Indonesia entitles women employees to two days menstrual leave per month, Japanese counterparts can rest during menstruation upon request.
"In Korea, employees are not even able to freely take sick leave and it is especially so for non-regular workers," Kim said.