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India Gets Serious About Maternity Benefits, But It Must Go Further

 
 

In March 2017, the Indian Parliament passed the Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Bill 2016. In an attempt to reach out to 1.8 million women post-implementation, this move pushes for 26 weeks of paid maternity leave, which is over double the mandatory status quo of 12 weeks in the organized sector. The bill will also aim to ensure that women face zero wage reduction by virtue of pregnancy, six weeks’ leave on account of pregnancy termination, and a month for illness.

The 26 weeks are applicable for up to two children and the benefits would whittle down to 12 weeks again from the third child onward. This applies to women who give birth through biological means as well as surrogacy, and also those who adopt a child under three months old. Provisions like work-from-home may be used by women on negotiation with the employer and maternal care is guaranteed for specific periods too, per the bill. While it is also applicable to women working in Special Economic Zones (SEZ), the bill does not apply to women in the unorganized sector, which is largely outside state regulation anyway.

While this bill, if implemented properly, has the potential to push India through to the top set of countries with maternity benefits, several concerns have been raised against it since passage. The largest of these questions is the exclusion of women in the unorganized sector. Workers in the unorganized sector lack documentation, state benefits, proper pay scales, and means of redress. They are at best left to the mercies of their employers to determine how much of the above they deserve. Women in this sector are doubly oppressed: not just by the pay gap, but also by the disproportionate threat of losing their jobs and income by taking maternity leave. This bill does not account therefore for women in the potentially largest slab of the labor force. Adding to this, some have observed that this bill seemingly does not take into account suggestions by the Supreme Court in 2000, a Parliamentary Standing Committee in 2007, and the Law Commission of India in 2015 to have in place a separate law targeting women in the unorganized sector.

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The second concern pertains to paternity leave. In practice, the responsibility of childcare has been placed very much with women in India, thus making them more vulnerable to sexism at hostile workplaces that do not believe that married women contribute as much to the company as men do. Accordingly, though the onus on maternity costs primarily rests with the employers even after this bill, it remains uncertain that the extended period will make working women’s career curves, pay raises, and promotions any better. Critics have suggested that better legislation on paternity leave will not just help reduce this bias against female employees, but also strongly suggest that the domestic responsibility of childcare is a shared one that working men must take on as well. Further, they argue, a better culture of welcoming women back into the workforce after this leave would go a long way in actually making this transition smooth rather than merely cosmetic.

Finally, the concern regarding implementation of this Bill looms large. States have an important role to play in unfolding these provisions. While some states – most recently Tamil Nadu – have pushed for maternity leave up to the entire nine months of pregnancy even prior to the passage of the bill, others have a long way to go. Unless there is a stronger push from the central government, individual states might deprioritize its implementation. Even when implemented, not all organizations might be able to provide the suggested 26 weeks and thus smaller companies with slimmer work forces may no longer find it as lucrative to hire married women. Shifting to a model where the government takes on the onus of providing for maternity benefits is an important first step India needs to take in order to truly emulate and join the ranks of the countries with the friendliest maternal policies.

The passage of this bill is an important first step that the Parliament has taken toward better maternity care and more women-friendly work places. However, by not fully engaging with the spectrum of women in need of such a policy, not pushing for the systems that will enable companies to fully support this law, and not contending with the ways in which the potential for pregnancy disadvantages the economic sustenance of working women, further steps cannot be taken. A more systematic commitment to its implementation is the need of the hour, before the conversation around this bill wanes.

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