How Can We Make Paid Maternity Leave A True Right For Domestic & Construction Workers Too?

The laws are there, but social and employers' mindsets make it very hard for women in the unorganised sector to get their rights.

Recently, the ‘Ministry of Women and Child Development’ & ‘Ministry of Labour and Employment’ jointly convened an event aimed at charting a path for women-led development in India where government issued advisories for women employed in the construction sector.

As per the directive, maternity benefits and emoluments under ‘PM Matru Vandana Yojana’ will now also be extended to women in the construction sector, which is largely an unorganised sector in India. This will include access to safe and basic sanitation, creches, entitlement to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave and up to 12 weeks of paid leave for an adoptive or surrogate mother.

How this will make a huge difference to women in the unorganised sector

To put this into effect, the labour ministry on Tuesday sent out a directive to all companies in the infrastructure sector that registered construction workers. With an increasing number of women contributing to the global economy in every sphere, it’s great to watch subtle changes being brought and talked about by the policymakers to create a conducive environment for women in workforce.

The amendment aims to create a nurturing atmosphere for nursing workers, curbing the likelihood of them ignoring their health and allowing them to support their family income. It’s indeed positive news, as the benefits were earlier only accessible to the women employees in the Indian organized sector.

I was delighted about the intended inclusivity because maternity leave is critical, considering the physiological demands associated with pregnancy and childbirth.

Not everyone is delighted with this news

However, the comments accompanying the news were far more critical than appreciative of the move. Amusingly, the reactions are quite similar to earlier when the Maternity Benefit Bill was passed in 2017.

Some deem it to be a basic need and have welcomed it saying that every working woman irrespective of the income strata or nature of work should be entitled to it. But there’s a majority that has spelled concerns around the employability of women wage workers in future once the directive would be in effect. And, I must say that I completely agree, as I can anticipate a similar outcome. Without few changes in the advisory and inclusion of a provision mandating a specific percentage of women to be hired for each construction project, employers might be hesitant to engage women in such roles.

Employers hesitate to hire pregnant women or those with kids

Perhaps, this must have been one of the primary reasons why Smriti Irani voiced out that ‘Menstruation isn’t a handicap’ and didn’t formalize period leaves i.e. to minimize biases that women already face at workplace and to ensure that employers are not disincentivized from hiring women.

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While it’s great to see that most of the large corporates are practicing ‘Empathy Leadership’ by preaching – “Care is the new currency”, it’s a fairly new movement. In reality, employers have hesitated to hire married women or those with children, assuming they may not contribute as much to productivity as male candidates, or will require time off for family obligations considering women’s caregiving roles. Attitudes toward women in the workforce shift when they marry or start a family, when ideally these personal choices should not affect their ability to pursue career goals.

Married men do not suffer in the same way

The point is, this shift in attitudes stems from employers’ observations of women taking more leaves or dedicating fewer hours due to increased caregiving responsibilities, a perception not applied to married men.

This brings me to a pertinent question- Why do men/boys in the family do not participate enough in caregiving responsibilities? Why is a woman’s employability and career always on line? As nuclear families become more prevalent, the diminishing familial and social backing for married women has anyway compelled them to forsake their professional pursuits to attend to family responsibilities. And, this trend is a significant setback for society.

Institutionalizing leaves should not jeopardize a woman’s chances of employment

As a menstruating woman myself, I understand that 50-90% of women worldwide experience painful periods, known as Dysmenorrhea, which needs ample rest, care and medication on those specific days. And, therefore denying paid leave for period ignores their genuine pain.

However, the counter-argument is also logical that employers prioritize profits and thus two paid leaves per woman would be viewed as an additional cost to the company or burden which can lead to hiring fewer women, undermining the argument’s core premise that is working towards providing equal opportunities.

A mid-way though can be chalked out by allowing women flexibility to work from home on those days to address the physical challenges.

The silence around women’s biology has to go

I understand that talking with our employers about our periods is embarrassing and uncomfortable for most of the women because of the social conditioning most of us have been raised up with where we don’t talk with even men of the family about it; but then that’s what needs to change. We need not encourage hush hush about it any further. In the age and era where women are occupying the workspaces and collaborating on factory floors as well, it would be a great catalyst to their morale when they see acknowledgement in every term; not just for their work contribution but it would indeed be progressive to also acknowledge their pain and stress.

We need to discuss parental leave, not just maternity leave

Talking about maternity leave, there’s no disputing that a woman’s body and mind undergo life-altering changes, encompassing both reversible and irreversible transformations during pregnancy and the postpartum period which warrant a considerable amount of time to heal, and then smoothly transition back to work.

However, the prolonged ‘paid maternity leave’ (extended from 3 months to 6 months in 2017) and the introduction of on-site childcare facilities in developing nations like India, where small businesses prevail and are expanding at a faster rate than larger corporations, and the financial strength of these small and medium-sized enterprises (SMBs) is not as robust as that of bigger companies or multinational corporations (MNCs), may have a more significant negative effect on female employment due to their relatively limited financial resources. Hence, a blend of paid and unpaid leave might be feasible for small-sized enterprises, yet it is essential to extend these benefits to safeguard women’s economic rights and guarantee job security.

A shift in perspective is necessary, wherein employers and society recognize these benefits not only as signs of progress on social and moral fronts but also as contributors to crucial work-life balance for women during a period when they need it the most. This approach would foster a productive employee, creating a mutually beneficial scenario for both the employer and employee.

Not just the employers, there’s resistance from families as well

The “Beti Bachao” and “Beti Padhao” initiatives have worked wonders for our nation by actively focusing on ensuring the completion of education for girls. Remarkably, the percentage of Indian girls pursuing STEM fields in higher education has surpassed that of girls in the USA over the past decade, indicating a high level of education. However, an intriguing situation has been on rise that despite their education, there is a declining trend in the percentage of girls entering the workforce each year.

The often overlooked bias that warrants discussion is the prejudice against considering women’s time of any value.

While workplace time bias is quantifiable through unequal pay, the more subtle manifestation of this bias is evident in domestic settings. From an early age, societal conditioning ingrains in women the perception that their time is less valuable than that of men, influencing how women express their domestic responsibilities. Regardless of profession, whether a woman is a doctor or a teacher, she will always say that her job is more flexible. This is an example of women being conditioned to guard men’s time as more valuable than their own. It would sound surprising but as per the neuroscientists, there’s no gender difference in our brains related to being a better caregiver or a superior multitasker.

It’s a double burden

The gender gap in caregiving burdens between partners is real, with assumed responsibility and guilt often surpassing the actual caregiving tasks. Women spend disproportionately more time on unpaid care work due to gendered social norms, creating a “double burden” alongside their paid activities. Unequal distribution of unpaid care work infringes on women’s rights and hinders their economic empowerment. The point is that basic life choices and biological functioning should not threaten women’s equal opportunities, and addressing these issues at the societal and policy levels is crucial for achieving gender equality. Some tweaks in our policies and we genuinely can work towards getting rid of biases and promote creating a levelled playground. But, policies alone cannot change what is intrinsic i.e. the mindset. Fostering sensitivity should begin at home.

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About the Author

Anuradha Gupta

A 35 year old educator from Gurgaon, Anuradha has done B.Tech plus MBA. A teacher and writer by passion, she began her career with Risk Consulting and Internal Audit, and later moved to the read more...

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