Maternity Benefit Bill: What did Indian women gain in 2016?

For these women engaged in hard labour, there is nothing in the Maternity Benefit Act Photograph:( Others )

WION Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Aug 16, 2016, 07.23 AM (IST) Neetha N.

The Upper House of the India Parliament (RajyaSabha) very recently passed the Maternity Benefit Bill (Amendment) of 2016. Undoubtedly, this is a move in the right direction for women workers of the country. The amendment provides for paid maternity leave of 26 weeks as against 12 weeks. However, a woman who has two or more children will continue to get only 12 weeks of maternity leave. Women adopting children as well as commissioning mothers through the surrogate system will also be entitled to a maternity leave of three months. 

The amended Act, however, is not applicable to all enterprises, but only those employing at least ten workers. The Act also proposes provisions for cr?ches in an establishment with 50 or more workers, leaving the provision of working from home to the discretion of employers.  

The rationale to amend the Act, which has been clearly spelled out by the labour minister in different occasions, is to address the sharp decline in work participation of women. It has been a major cause of worry in recent years.  However, to what extent these amendments in the Maternity Act is going to improve the dismal scenario of women’s employment is something that one needs to wait and see. 

Available experience and pieces of evidence indicate that the amended act will not have much impact on women workers in the informal sector. Women from lower income brackets, who are mostly concentrated in the informal sector, are not eligible even for a single day of paid maternity leave, not to speak of three or more months! Thus, how these amendments are going to affect the overall employment rates is a puzzle.

Provision for cr?ches, to be provided either individually by the enterprise or shared commonly, is actually a dilution of the provisions of the Factories Act of 1948, which provided for mandatory cr?ches in workplaces that employ minimum 30 workers. Further, in the current context of slack enforcement of labour laws, the enforcement of the amended Act is a serious concern. There is a possibility that it would remain as yet another legislative protection in the paper, but without due implementation.

There is  enough evidence of young women being denied employment because of the possibility of them taking leaves to meet maternity and child care demands. Many firms ask female job aspirants about their marital status and maternity plans, while such issues are never raised with their male counterparts. To circumvent any maternity related demands, women are often asked to sign work contracts to ensure a minimum period of continuous employment without maternity breaks.  

Retrenchment of women workers on account of life cycle demands adversely affects their re-entry or future employment possibilities too. Except for a few occupations, thus, it is really hard to find married women workers. Women face discrimination and harassment when they announce that they are pregnant.  

The Centre for Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi conducted a study among women workers of the region across different sectors; the proportion of married women was found very low even in manufacturing. Other than taking maternity leave or breaks, it is very difficult for women to return to work post-pregnancy, as many of them find their jobs under threat. Denying promotions to women who have been on maternity leave is also a common phenomenon. 

However, there are some recent corporate interventions which bring some hope. Some companies have changed their maternity benefit policies, including increasing the mandatory three months paid leave to six months. But, while this may go well with large or medium companies, small companies may not find it worthy enough to provide adequate maternity leave in a situation where there is no shortage of skilled labour most of the time.

In India, there are no specific and concluding studies on the effect of maternity leave on a woman’s career or on the economy at large. Most of the studies are done on developed countries which focus on the health benefits of maternity leave on women and children. Such studies do show that adequate maternity leave is conducive to the upbringing of healthy and productive workers. 

Strong positive correlation has been established between the duration of maternity leave and the likelihood of mothers returning to work. In India, many industry-level studies indicate that a good proportion of women quit their careers midway due to maternity and care issues. Given this, provision of long-term maternity leave could ensure women joining the workforce after the leave period. This means companies do not have to waste time and resources finding new workers. 

The research done so far suggests that paid leave policies have positive effects on workplace morales and can increase the productivity of workers in general. The provision of paid maternity leaves also benefit the company to check attrition among women workers. Also, this will help the company to attract qualified women to take up work, who may otherwise be discouraged by the lack of any women-specific protection measures.

Economic reasoning should not be the only reason to provide protection to workers. If we go by such a rationale, many of the hitherto existing labour laws and welfare measures have to be rolled back. Thus, even if no major economic benefit could be proved or predicted, it does not mean we have to dismantle the state’s enabling role in terms of adequate protection to women workers during maternity and child care periods.

It is also worth pointing out here, that the present amendment without any change in the scope of its coverage is a big disappointment for all those who are fighting for the rights of women workers as well as children.  In principle, maternity entitlements must be universal and unconditional, and cannot be linked to the size of the enterprise, nature of workforce or number of children. Instead of increasing the duration of maternity leave under the act, excluding all informal sector workers, it would have been better to scale up the Central Scheme for Maternity Entitlements from its pilot phase, which would have helped all women accessing some maternity entitlements.