Why in News?

The Lok Sabha has passed the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016 on 9th March, 2017. The Bill had already been passed by the Rajya Sabha during the Winter Session. With this, the Bill stands passed in the Parliament.

Highlights of the Bill

The Bill seeks to amend the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 to provide for the following:-

  • Maternity leave available to the working women to be increased from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for the first two children.
  • Maternity leave for children beyond the first two will continue to be 12 weeks.
  • Maternity leave of 12 weeks to be available to mothers adopting a child below the age of three months as well as to the “commissioning mothers”. The commissioning mother has been defined as biological mother who uses her egg to create an embryo planted in any other woman.
  • Every establishment with more than 50 employees to provide for crèche facilities for working mothers and such mothers will be permitted to make four visits during working hours to look after and feed the child in the crèche.
  • The Bill requires an establishment to inform a woman of all benefits that would be available under the Bill, at the time of her appointment. Such information must be given in writing and electronically.
  • An employer may permit a woman to work from home, if the nature of work assigned permits her to do so. This may be mutually agreed upon by the employer and the woman.
  • The Bill will be applicable to the establishment that hires at least 10 or more people.
  • With this law, India will have one of the highest paid maternity leave limits for women, next only to the highly-developed countries of Canada and Norway.

Do you know?
India will take third place in terms of Maternity leaves after Canada and Norway where it is 50 weeks and 44 weeks respectively.

KEY ISSUES AND ANALYSIS 

1. Advantages and disadvantages of raising maternity leave

The Maternity Benefits Act, 1961 requires the employer to provide its women workers with maternity leave of upto12 weeks, with full wages. The Bill rises this period of maternity leave to 26 weeks.

Several expert bodies including the Law Commission of India and the Indian Labour Conference have highlighted the need to provide maternity leave up to a period of 24 weeks. The World Health Organisation recommends that children must be exclusively breastfed by the mother for the first 24 weeks to improve their survival rates and for the healthy development of both mother and child.It has also been argued that the absence of adequate maternity leaveand income security leads to women dropping out of the labour force. Women employees in the central government are currently entitled to maternity leave of 24 weeks and additional child care leave up to a period of two years.

On the other hand, it could be argued that increasing maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks could have an adverse impact on the job opportunities available for women. Since the Bill requires the employer to pay full wages during maternity leave, it could increase costs for employers and result in a preference for hiring male workers.

 Also, theincrease in costs could impact the competitiveness of industries that employ a higher proportion of women workers.Some countries have addressed this issue by creating different mechanisms for financing maternity leave. 

2. Financing of maternity benefits

Under the 1961 Act, the employer is liable to pay women workers maternity benefits up to a period of 12 weeks. The Bill increases this period to 26 weeks. This implies that employers will have to pay their women workers full wages for this period. The question is whether employers should bear the cost of providing maternity benefits. It could be argued that since maternal and child health is a public good, it would be appropriate for the government to finance such social security measures.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Maternity Protection Conventions have stated that employers should notbe exclusively liable for the cost of providing maternity benefits to their women employees. It has recommendedthat the benefits should be provided through compulsory social insurance or public funds.

3. Unorganised women workers not covered under the Act

The 1961 Act covers women workers employed in factories, mines, plantations, shops and establishments with 10 ormore employees, and any other establishments. This constitutes about 18 lakh women workers.

However it must be noted that about90% of working women are in the unorganised sector and are not covered by the 1961 Act. In 2015, the LawCommission of India recommended that the provisions of the 1961 Act should cover all women, including women working in the unorganised sector.

Women workers in the unorganised sector include agricultural labourers, seasonal workers, domestic workers or construction workers. They often work in unstructured conditions, and may have multiple employers. Due to such employment conditions, they may not be able to prove eligibility under the 1961 Act such as continuous employment for a period of 80 days in the one year prior to the date of delivery.

Currently, such women may claim maternity benefits under the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana, a conditional cash transfer scheme. Under the scheme, Rs 6,000 is provided to a pregnant woman for the birth of two children.Such schemes provide a lump sum payment but do not fully address the issue of loss of income or assure job security.

This could make it difficult for such women to afford rest from work to take care of their child and their own health. 

4.Woman with only two or more children entitled to 26 weeks of leave

The Bill extends the period of maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks. However, this increase in maternity leave does not apply to women with two or more surviving children. Such women will be entitled to 12 weeks of leave.

The government has stated that the Bill seeks to extend the period of maternity leave to 26 weeks to ensure maternal care to the child during early childhood. It has also noted that such early care is essential for the growth and development of the child. This objective could be defeated if sufficient maternity leave is not given in the case of a third born child. Currently under the 1961 Act, the minimum maternity leave of 12 weeks applies in all cases, regardless of the number of previous children. 

Critical analysis

Passing of this bill just one day after International Women day is a great leap by legislature for welfare of the women and new borne baby in particular and overall institution of family in general.

However, critics are of view that now onwards bringing up children will now become even more of women’s work than men’s. What could be more patriarchal than this?

The only sensible way to end the imbalance in care-giving, where women handle the lion’s share of work, is to give men an equal and mandatory paternity leave. Alternatively, one could allow both women and men to share a given period of maternity leave between them based on what is most optimal for both parents and the welfare of the child. It is not necessary to insist that both parents must do a 50:50 share in bringing up children, but they must at least have the option.

Worse, once women stay out of the workplace for half a year, their career prospects too may suffer as their colleagues move on, and they get left behind. In a fast-changing world, where jobs are ephemeral and learning needs to be a constant effort, it is not a good idea to keep women away from the workplace for so long.

The small and micro companies, where the margins are low would be affected. If any company with 10 employees has to give paid leave for six months, with no certainty that this leave won’t be extended in some cases, it will automatically be resistant to the idea of employing more women in the relevant age category. Small companies work on thin margins, and inflicting the cost of higher maternity leave on them will deter them from doing what is socially right.

The point is not that women should not be given a large dollop of leave during maternity. They should be given such benefits. They have a right to enjoy the first phase of motherhood without being dragged down by excessive work-related pressures. But without equal treatment of both parents, we are only entrenching patriarchy in the guise of helping mothers.

We need to give up the idea that work, baby-making and infant care are separate spheres of a parent’s life, whether the parent happens to be female or male.

If you want to move away from gender-defined roles, the last thing to do is to make maternity leave the right of only one gender. It is one thing to accept that maternity is different from paternity till the child is born, but after birth there is no need to widen this gulf in responsibilities through one-sided maternity legislation.

 

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