The new Maternity Benefit Act amendments offer a ray of hope. Yet, has enough been done to help women get back to work?
A recent amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 was approved last week, by which now, the maternity leave for working women has been extend to about 6.5 months, from the original 3 months.
This change comes closely on the heels of much criticism having been levelled against the Act for frugal maternity leave, and for the non-implementation of several other beneficiary provisions mentioned under the act.
According to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, working women are entitled to, apart from maternity leave, nursing breaks, time off from work for miscarriages and tubectomies and even a limited monetary benefit for those who cannot afford healthcare under the Employee’s State Insurance Scheme.
Specifically, the act addresses women working in all commercial, industrial and agricultural establishments that employ ten or more people. The ripple effect of its original rules of no more than three months maternity leave was felt in the private sector, too, which was legally bound to provide only three months of paid leave for new mothers.
With the amendment, the new rule requires providing six and a half months of maternity leave, and also
mandates providing crèche facilities where the number of employees is above fifty. Now, as per this new
legislation, employers are mandated to allow new mothers to work from home whenever it is possible.
While the obvious positive of the amendment is that women are now given the comfort of staying home with their newborn longer, and that the initial phase where mothers bond with their kids is not dispensed away with, there are a few more advantages to account for.
The erstwhile maternity legislation, though beneficial in intent, was only frugally beneficial in practice. Poor maternity leave and after-care policies were one of the most significant factors that determined women’s choices when it came to pregnancy: to stay and work, or to quit working after motherhood. In the process, a large amount of talent, capacity and skills – in the form of capable people – was dispensed with, as many of them never came back to work.
The Indian Women’s Network of the Confederation of Indian Industry issued a report that suggests that an about 37% of working women in India have opted out of their jobs mid-career, owing to maternity or childcare issues. The impact of this cuts both ways – on the employee herself, for she loses her job, but for the employer as well – for the exit of skilled employees reduces the efficiency and the profitability of the enterprise itself.
One of the issues that the amendment could have addressed is the dismissal of pregnant employees. There is a lot of discrimination that prevails against pregnant women, in the private sector, as the National Commission of Women shows.
There are several instances where workers have often reported being given unexpected poor performance reviews or even termination letters, or are even called to the human resources department for ‘counselling’ on the grounds of concocted reasons, including bad attitude or mood swings. Sometimes, companies go so far as to keep such treatment going, without firing the employees – so that they themselves decide to resign.
The amendment could have addressed the issue of discrimination against pregnant employees – and penalized it, too. Section 12 of the 1961 legislation offers that the dismissal of an employee on the ground of pregnancy will be punishable, but the truth is that no employer cites pregnancy as a reason for dismissal. Even as the amendment offers a ray of hope, there is still some misgiving as regards the implementation of these new provisions.
The amendment provides a safeguard in the form of punishment for the employer upon contravention of the terms with a year’s worth of imprisonment and/or a fine. The amendment also mandates the appointment of inspectors to verify the implementation – however, one is left wondering how much of a sanction this is, to evoke compliance.
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