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Maternity Bill

Maternity Bill

A day after the world celebrated International Women’s Day, the Lok Sabha passed the much-awaited Maternity Amendment Bill. It had already been passed by the Upper House. The Bill makes it mandatory for the employers to give 26 weeks’ paid maternity leave to women working in the organised sector.

The moment the Bill was passed, minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi said, "I am very, very happy we have made history today. This will help thousands of women and produce much healthier children. We have been working on it for a long time." 

Certainly, it was a moment of joy as India was the third country in the world providing 26 weeks of maternity leave after Canada and Norway which offered 50 weeks and 40 weeks’ paid leave respectively. However, after two children, women will get only 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Not only this, the Bill has made it mandatory for organisations having 50 employees to have a crèche facility, where the mothers can keep their children. In case the organisation cannot have crèche in the office premises, it can have the facility at such a distance as may be prescribed in the rules, which will be notified after the Bill receives the President’s assent or can have a tie-up with an external agency. The women will be allowed to visit the crèche four times a day.

Though the provision will encourage female employees to resume work after availing of the maternity leave, the government has forgotten to take into account that only a few large industrial units would be in a position to bear the kind of expenses they may have to incur for providing the extended maternity leave and crèche facilities. 

The mandatory clauses shall go against the interests of a small enterprise or a start-up, which may have 50 employees, but is somehow managing to pay salaries and bear other operational costs. In such cases, employees may think twice before hiring a married woman.

The questions like “are you married” or “how long have you been married” will become the only criterion for selection of women in such units. Imagine a woman and a man appearing for an interview, where both have similar qualifications. With a mandate for providing leave only to women, who do you think the employer would prefer to hire? Certainly, the male candidate. 

Except for a few jobs, which are female-centric, most of the work can be easily done by males. In other words, it is very easy to replace a female with a male candidate in the job sector. 

The ILO report on “Maternity and Paternity at work” says that many research papers have concluded that schemes which place the financial burden of maternity leave on employers work against the interest of women. The employers in such cases may not hire, retain or promote women with familial responsibilities and may even find reasons to terminate the services of pregnant employees to avoid paying wages and other incidental costs.

In a country, where it is common to see job advertisements demanding male candidates for certain jobs, women may lose the space they had created over the last few decades, thanks to the stringent legislation for a paid maternity leave of 26 weeks, which entrusts the entire financial burden on the employer. 

The government may take pride in saying that India is next to Norway in providing maternity leave but it does not share any expense relating to maternity, nor does it have any social security scheme which the employers may avail of to reduce its financial burden. Of course, the government will provide maternity benefits to its own staff.

In India, women constitute only 24 per cent of the paid workforce against the global average of 40 per cent according to a recent report published by McKinsey Global Institute. The World Bank data show that India has one of the worst gender gaps. In such circumstances, the new law will only add to the woes of working women.

Also, the absence of any legislation mandating paternity leave will only add to the discrimination that women face at the workplace. It is akin to promoting the age-old preference for a male. Our honourable minister for women and child development mocked at the idea of having paternity leave and said, “Paternity leave can be considered only if, once the woman goes back to work after her 26 weeks of leave, we find that men are availing of their sick leave for a month to take care of the child. Let me see how many men do that. I will be happy to give it but for a man, it will be just a holiday, he won’t do anything”.  

The minister ignored the recommendations made by the labour ministry in 2011 and also a recent report by the national commission of women. The two reports have acknowledged the fact that maternity leave alone mounts pressure on a woman’s productive and reproductive roles. 

The reports recommended introduction of a paid paternity leave. It is surprising that the government which amended the Central civil services leave rules way back in 1990s and introduced 15 days’ paternity leave is reluctant in bringing a mandatory provision for the private sector.

A recent report published by the World Bank titled ‘Women, Business and the Law (2016)’, says that more than 80 countries have provisions for paternity leave. In a majority of the cases, the salary during this period is generally funded by the government. Amongst our neighbours, Afghanistan, China, Hong Kong and Singapore provide for mandatory paternity leave. If India can become the third country in the world for providing the longest maternity leave, why can’t it walk in the footsteps of nations like Afghanistan, instead of following Canada and Norway, the countries having negative population growth? 

While the law has brought some cheers on the ground, it will benefit only a few privileged women working in the organised sector ignoring the huge percentage of women working as contract labour, farmers, maid-servants etc.

It will benefit only 1.8 million women, working in the organised sector, constituting 12.1 per cent of the total employed women. In that sense, the Bill fails to address the concerns of a majority of the working women, who do not even earn minimum wages, making them financially more vulnerable.

In the year 2000, the apex court in the ‘Municipal Corporation of Delhi vs. female workers’ case held that female construction workers, who are not regular workers, are entitled to maternity benefits. The amended Bill has completely ignored the landmark judgement. The Law Commission of India had in 2015 recommended maternity benefits for those working in the unorganised sector also. Alas, most of the recommendations remain only on paper and are conveniently ignored by the law makers!

Also, the Bill provides for 12 weeks of paid leave for a woman who adopts a child below the age of three months and the commissioning mother (in cases of surrogacy). However, the government has enacted another law on surrogacy making it virtually impossible to commission surrogacy, thus defeating the provisions under this Bill.

To put it in simple words, the government has enacted a law, without actually delving deep into the problems affecting the working women. It only reinforces the age-old patriarchal gender roles that childcare is the sole responsibility of women and “men actually do nothing”. The statement from the minister is as disappointing as the Bill itself. 

(The writer is a company secretary and director, communications, Deepalaya.

#(Published on 20th March 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 12)