Will the amended Maternity Benefit Bill cure all that ails working mothers?

New Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Nishtha GautamUpdated: Oct 04, 2016, 01:07 PM IST

The benefits of the bill are unlikely to touch women working in the unregulated sector. Photograph:(Getty)

The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016 will be enacted soon as Lok Sabha, India’s lower house, is expected to pass it in November. 

Union women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi expects the bill to "come through in November".

The half-a-century old Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, is set to get a facelift in view of changing needs of Indian women.

The new bill attempts to safeguard the working women's financial interests by raising the paid maternity leave from three months to six months. It also covers ‘commissioning mothers’ in cases of surrogacy, and mothers who adopt children below three months of age.

Employers will also be obliged to allow women to work from home after the period of six months, if the nature of their job is such. The bill also mandates the establishment of creche facility for every organisation having fifty or more employees, irrespective of their gender.

On the face of it, the bill looks like a wish come true for women. But closer scrutiny exposes several chinks in the protective armour for working mothers.

The problems begin with the definition of the phrase — working mothers — itself. While the law will be universally applicable, it seems it will benefit only working mothers working in the regulated sector. As the majority of Indian women are employed in the informal sector, the benefits of the bill will only be availed by a minuscule population of working mothers and mothers-to-be.

“No laws benefit people employed in the informal sector. Forget about maternity benefits, even labour laws are not complied with here. Non-compliance is the biggest malaise in this sector,” says Ranjana Kumari of Centre for Social Research.

“The very structure of this sector creates problems of compliance. There are no clearly defined employee-employer relationships,” Kumari further says, citing muddled notions of employment contract in India’s agriculture sector. “For women engaged in the agriculture sector, it is even worse. Sometimes landless labourers work on other people’s farms following a barter system. Who is the employer here?”

“In cases of large-scale contracts, like in supply chain of a textile industry, the employer is usually behind the screen. The contractor has only limited to negligible accountability,” says Kumari, who has been working for rights of women and other socially disadvantaged groups for more than two decades.

What frustrates her is that consecutive governments have failed in ensuring the welfare of people who have survival jobs.

“The government must come down heavily on those who do not comply (with the soon-to-be legislated maternity bill). For that to happen, definitions for employee-employer relationship need to be comprehensive,” she concludes.

It is not as if everything has been hunky-dory for women in the organised sector.

The statistics present an unsavoury picture for both rural-urban and formal-informal scenarios in this regard. At a dismal 27 per cent, India's performance in female workforce participation is worst amongst the BRICS nations. China leads with 64 per cent followed by Brazil (59 per cent), Russian Federation (57 per cent), and South Africa (45 per cent).

Unsurprisingly, India’s position in this regard is among the lowest in the world.

What is even more worrying, however, is that India has seen a drop in female labour participation in the past ten years.

According to an ASSOCHAM-Thought Arbitrage Research study, it has dropped by 10 per cent between 2005 and 2015. Despite economic growth, lesser women are finding it possible to find work. Some of the reasons cited by the report are lack of access to higher education, shrinking job opportunities, inflexibility at workplace, and burden of domestic duties.

Attrition rate remains high in India Inc too. The sleek glass-and-chrome offices notwithstanding, antediluvian mindset pervades most workplaces.  

“While the current bill addresses some of the concerns, mindsets present a bigger challenge. But how does one deal with fossilised ideas with respect to maternity?” says Aditi Sheoran Chhajta, a New Delhi-based Human Resource professional.

Mother of a six-month-old girl, Chhajta has a problem with the concept of ‘leaning in’. “My body and my mind are occupied with the recent changes they have just undergone. Why should I be forced to prove myself all over again after the maternity leave gets over? Women should not be viewed as policy-backed freeloaders who won't get promoted unless they prove themselves again.”

Compliance with work hours also puts them at a disadvantage. While men stay at work for longer hours, working mothers find it hard to stay longer at offices.

There are other hurdles for working mothers. Requesting anonymity, an executive editor in a big media house shares, “My office has a state-of-art gymnasium but no crèche. Imagine the plight of young mothers who have dynamic work hours! I am glad I'm a man.”

In another media conglomerate, a young mother is contemplating resignation. Lavanya Gaur (name changed) is a senior HR manager with a three-year-old daughter.

“My office has no crèche. I cannot find a suitable one for my daughter in the vicinity. Almost all crèches open at 9 am and close by 5:30 pm while my work hours are from 9:30 am to 6:30 am. Usually I leave around 7 pm on good days and go well beyond that on hectic days. I don’t know where to keep my daughter while I am away at work,” says a visibly perturbed Gaur.

Did she inform the management? “Yes, I did. But the top management in each company has its ways to ignore issues that concern women. The moot point here is that a crèche is a necessity for both men and women,” she replies.

As of now, Gaur is frantically looking for crèches near her office in Noida and has requested her parents-in-law to live with them till she finds one.

Strict compliance of the intended Maternity Bill can help alleviate the tribulations of many a young parent like Gaur.

For many others, however, the Bill, in its current form, leaves a lot desired.