A Critique on the Maternity Benefits Bill

Towards the culmination of the Parliament’s Monsoon Session (August 2016), a Maternity Benefits Bill, proposed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MoWCD), was approved by the Rajya Sabha. The approved Bill is a second amendment to the Maternity Benefits Act (1961). The first amendment to the Act was undertaken in the year 1989, according to which, an expectant mother is entitled to a total of 12 weeks’ paid leave. Of the 12 weeks, depending on the discretion and subjective requirement of the expectant mother, it was permissible to break down the total leave equally, prior to the child birth and post-delivery.

Maternity Benefit Study

For the Rajya Sabha approved Maternity Benefits Bill by MoWCD; a paid leave of 6.5 months(26 weeks) is decreed to the expectant mother who can either be an employee of the Private Sector or the Public Sector. In addition, the Bill has made it mandatory for firms with 50 employees or more to have crèche arrangements with prescribed distance. Mrs. Maneka Gandhi, the presiding Minister of MoWCD, stated that 6.5 months on which the sanction has been received is a step down from the actual requirement of 7 months’ leave, as was demanded by the women across the country. As per Mrs. Gandhi’s estimate, the new Bill would positively impact 70 percent women workforce in the country.

A research study conducted by the Centre for Social Research (CSR) stated that 20 percent (N = 62) of the women working in the Private Sector do not avail the 12 weeks’ paid maternity leave, as per the 1989 statute. About 19 percent women reported to have availed unlimited access to maternity leave and the remaining reported to only avail as much as two leaves of absence from work for maternity purposes. In the light of this data, there is indeed great merit in the recently approved Maternity Benefits Bill of MoWCD. The 6.5 months’ maternity leave would not only help the new mother recuperate from the rigours of child birth, but also give her time to bond with the newborn. This should be perceived as a time investment put into progressively shaping the country’s future generation.

Maternity Benefits Bill

However, CSR proposes the MoWCD for considering the inclusion of paternity leave and provisions for women working in the informal sector, as two crucial aspects that haven’t been taken into consideration so far.As per the aforementioned research study conducted by CSR, only about 10 percent women reported awareness about the fact that expectant mothers are entitled to medical bonus and about 21 percent reported awareness about nursing break entitlement.Hence, an additional proposition would be to increase awareness about these benefits of the Bill as well.

The inclusion of paternity leave is a felt need in order to ensure that both the parents create a system, through which a balance can be arrived at, for meeting the demands of a regular life, responsibilities of livelihood and the new dimension of parenthood. Since paternity leave is not de rigeur; men are not able to make adequate effort in creating a gender balanced approach for child rearing and equitable domestic responsibilities.

There is also an urgent need to address the majority of the Indian women who work in the informal sector. As per the Ministry of Labour and Employment of India and International Labour Organization (2012), only 4 percent Indian female workers in the age group of 15-49 years, work in the formal sector. The Maternity Benefits Bill by MoWCD is biased towards permanent full-time workers who are registered by the employers. It does not take into consideration the remaining 96 percent women who work in the unorganized sector,who do not have an identifiable employer,nor do they have a designated place of work. The Maternity Benefits Bill should not only take into its ambit, women working in the unorganized sector, but also those who are working under Mahatma Gandhi National Guarantee Employment Act, 2005.

The 4 percent to whom the Bill can possibly benefit; may also be at a disadvantage due to the competitive market in which the Private Sector operates. The employers in the sector perceive 6.5 months’ maternity leave as a time loss by a human resource which is in direct proportion to the possible financial setback. This may adversely impact recruitment of women workforce into the Private Sector; especially if they pregnant at the time of enrollment, regardless of their competency levels. In instances when women avail the complete maternity leave; they have had to forgo increments after re-joining their organization since ‘considerable’ time is perceived to be lost in the duration of child birth and child rearing. An example of the same is Ms. Reva Nair who could have been the first female Cabinet Secretary but had to forgo the promotion, owing to the fact that she took a prolonged leave to raise her children. For the women working in the Private Sector, the implementation of the Bill would be more of a privilege as compared to women working in the Public Sector. The latter being a Government regulated sector, it would be more accountable for executing the Maternity Benefits Act. Unfortunately for the Private Sector, it may be perceived as a liability because the employer would have to not only accommodate the absence of the resource, but also incur financial expenditure without immediate productive input. Due to this, the interests of the Private Sector employer over-rides that of the working woman.

It is high time and beyond to create work spaces (in formal and informal sector) that respect the talent and hard work, women bring in to boost the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Today, Indian women contribute only 17 percent to the GDP which falls severely short of the 37 percent global benchmark. “For a family, double income helps them to fulfil their economics needs and social aspirations while single women need it as a cushion against economic adversity. Therefore, household bound non-employed women who are finding it difficult to work are (one of the) economic concern(s) that need to be fixed.” (Reuters)

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