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The proposed amendments to the Maternity Benefit Bill have been cleared by the Parliament. Now all it needs is strict ground-level implementation.
On March 9, 2017, the Lok Sabha passed the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016 – increasing maternity leave from twelve weeks (under the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961) to twenty-six weeks, for up to two surviving children.
The bill also provides maternity benefits of twelve weeks to a commissioning mother (in case of surrogacy) and an adoptive mother (if the child adopted is under three months). A woman who gives birth after already having had two or more children, gets to have twelve weeks of maternity leave.
Aside of this, the bill has opened up an avenue that can successfully facilitate a work-from-home option through an enabling provision. The Bill makes it mandatory for any establishment with fifty or more employees to have crèches, either individually or as a shared common facility with other similar establishments that are situated within a 500 meter radius.
The bill also allows the mother for daily visits to the crèche, including an interval for rest during the day. The bill requires that every establishment should intimate in writing and electronically to every woman at the time of her initial appointment about the benefits available under the Act.
The origins of the Maternity Benefit Act go back to 1961, when the original legislation was passed with the intent of regulating the employment of women for a period of time before and after child birth, and provides maternity benefits. The legislation specifically covers women employees in factories, in mines, the circus industry, in plantations and shops and establishments that employ ten or more people. The act specifically does not cover employees who are covered under the Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948. Historically, the Indian Labour Conference in its 44th Session, in 2012, recommended expanding on maternity leave from twelve weeks to twenty-four weeks. The recommendation was reiterated in the 45th and 46th sessions of the ILC – and has culminated in the current development.
While it is definitely true that the legislation has paved the way for a great benefit for mothers, it is important to understand that this is only one part of the solution. A large part of the success of the legislation remains dependent on the implementation – and one often does hear of instances where women are treated with discrimination that’s sometimes polished and subtle, or sometimes, overt and open; by refusing to give them promotions that are deserved, or taking them off assignments on the ground of pregnancy or maternity needs and in some cases, bypassing them for promotions while allowing someone far junior to rise up the ladder.
Take for instance the case of Shaan Thimmiah, who worked in an IT company until August 2016. She says, “I gave birth to my daughter and went back after twelve weeks, but I was just not given a chance to be part of teams for projects even though my skills were perfect. I never defaulted, I never let work suffer, but the folks who put the teams together would say ‘Oh but Shaan just had a baby, she can’t work on this’ or ‘Shaan can’t put in long working hours because of her baby.’ Who were they to decide that for me? It became too oppressive because there was no room for encouragement of my growth, and I eventually put in my papers.”
In some instances, the cloak of work-from-home can be used to cut out a woman from the relevant workforce conversation and even knowing about opportunities that are available to her. These behaviours constitute a form of micro-aggression that can be counterintuitive and nullify the impact of a twenty-four week leave. Priya L, a former employee in a design company explains, “What I’m saying may still hold relevant for other women even if you mandate a work-from-home or a twenty-four week system. I am a designer – can’t go into details of what I design because that might give away my identity and I am under a non-disclosure – and when my twins were born, I worked from home well within the twelve weeks because I simply wanted to. When I went back, I found that there was so much that I was entitled to take part in the form of workshops (scheduled for after the twelve weeks), improvement programs, projects and assignments. The presumption that I was unfit because I was now a mother really hit hard.”
There are also instances where women do come from backgrounds where they have a suitable support system that go back to work in person before the twelve-weeks ended, and the isolation was just as palpable through micro-aggressions.
The law is missing a mention of a non-discriminatory and unbiased reintegration of the woman post-partum. There are several companies that offer seamless transitions into the workforce following maternity leave, but the law not mandating it with an implementing body to watch over it only encourages a loophole that can continue to keep women out of the workforce.