What is wrong with India's maternity leave policy?

If we go by the dictionary meaning, a policy is a “plan of action agreed or chosen by a government, a company, etc.” It is implemented according to what is thought to be the best way to handle a given situation. Policies are supposed to be formulated and implemented in order to achieve a desired result.
The Leave Policy in India enables privilege leaves, casual leaves, compensatory leave, leave carried forward, paid casual leave, etc. If it comes to the number of leaves applicable in a company, the State acts as the main deciding agency. The number of leaves varies according to the provision under the “Shop and Establishment Act” of a state.

For example, the West Bengal Shops and Establishment Act, 1963 states in section 11 called Leave -

“A person employed in a shop or an establishment shall be entitled:
a) for every completed year of continuous services, to privilege leave on full pay for fourteen days”.
Whereas, the Delhi Shops and Establishment Act, 1954, under section 22 of the same name states that-
“(1) Every person employed in an establishment shall be entitled-
(a) after every twelve months’ continuous employment, to privilege leave for a total period of not less than fifteen days:”.

Maternity leave can be availed by an employee to take care of the newborn or recently adopted child. Maternity leave was formulated keeping in mind the health of mothers and their children. The 1911 National Insurance Act first included a universal maternal health benefit due to the encouragement of David Llyod George, then Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Before World War II, women’s paid labor largely consisted of “feminine” jobs like typing or knitting, and they were also expected to leave the profession as soon as they are pregnant. Millions of women joined the labor force between 1940-45. Jobs such as working in defense plants or navy or factories which were mostly dominated by males until then, opened opportunities for women as a gap got created in the labor force due to more men departing for the war.

Inertia of conventions has long restricted women’s ingress into a male-dominated industry. They have long worked as unpaid domestic laborers and being forbidden from higher education caused a general condition of dependence on the men folk economically as well as socially. It was through the 19th and 20th centuries that the concept of paid work changed as official jobs were introduced which wouldn’t require a lot of physical strain. Thus more women gained entry in an occupation outside of household work, childcare and eldercare.

An article in The Economist advocates how various studies have found a “U-shape” relationship between educational attainment and workforce participation. Women have not always been treated as damsel in distress, ones who can still be accepted as possessing brains, though with a pinch of salt, but never brawn. Women who live in rural areas who cannot educate themselves according to the standardized mode of learning due to reasons like poverty or lack of infrastructure take to farming or other forms of physical labor like carrying bricks.

In the mid-1920s, the National Council of Women in India was established, under the aegis of Lady Willingdon and Lady Stephens which largely concentrated on maternity and child welfare. The Women’s Indian Association was the first women’s organization to raise awareness regarding the demands of women workers and it was in 1921 Jamshedpur strike that the need for maternity leave was first brought up. S.K. Bole, the Bombay social reformer, moved a resolution in 1924 in the Legislative Council urging the Indian Government to grant laws for the enactment of maternity leave. Since the Government of India had left the responsibility of the question of the above leave to provincial governments, it was only in 1929 that the Bombay Maternity Benefit Act was passed.

It seems to be a long way that women have traversed especially now that paid maternity leaves are a reality. Through Article 16 of the Indian Constitution, the fundamental right of women for equality of opportunity in matters relating to employment is protected. “The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 (No. 53 of 1961)” was passed in India by both the houses of Parliament and received the assent of President on 12th December, 1961, which entitled every woman employee, eligible according to the terms of the Act, to the privilege of maternity benefits
It is interesting to note how only in the Twelfth year of the Republic of India was such a policy introduced.

The application of the Act was mandatory for every establishment, whether a factory, mine or plantation, including any such organizations belonging to the Government. The workers of factories and establishments who fall under the Employees State Insurance Act of 1948 however did not enjoy these benefits.
Some of the cash benefits consisted of leave with average pay for six weeks before and after, and additional leave with pay up to one month if the employee suffers from some illness because of the pregnancy or delivery. Non-cash privileges ranged from light work for ten weeks before the expected delivery date to two nursing breaks within her working hours till the child is about a year and three months old. She is authorized to avail 6 weeks leave with pay even in the case of a miscarriage or medical termination following the day of her miscarriage or termination of pregnancy.

In August 2016, an amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act was passed by the Rajya Sabha and by the Lok Sabha in March 2017. The Maternity Benefit Act 2017 (Amendment) increased the leave period from 3 months to more than 6 months, that is, 26 weeks for women working in any establishment with a minimum of 10 employees. This does not apply to working-cum-expecting women with more than two children, who will continue to enjoy a leave of 12 weeks. The Act is applicable to both government and private sector jobs.
Nevertheless, the landmark Amendment Act which became effective from April 2017 poses quite a few significant problems we should be concerned about. Not only is it formed within the heteronormative paradigm, it further concretizes gender-based divisions of labor by depicting how the onus of raising a child is only that of the mother. It goes contrary to the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission, 2008 and the Law Commission of India, 2015, excluding the informal sector of female workers which negatively affects the educational and employment possibilities of the older sibling, if and often a girl child, in order to assist her mother in looking after her younger siblings while their mother is away. Also. it does not have guidelines concerning crèche accessibility, though a mid-November 2017 circular issued by the Ministry of Labor and Employment, Government of India, asked the state governments to initiate rules regarding crèches.
It has impacted the hiring inclination of employers, as Lakshmi Murthy, Chief People Officer, ITM Group of Institutions, suggested in an interview with India Today. “A key employee’s absence of 26 weeks weighs very heavily on business in an extremely competitive, low margin corporate world,” she said.

On one hand it spurs stress free childcare, but on the other women may be denied of key positions or promotions as the employer will tend to escape the extra cost of maternity leave as well as a substitute in her absence.
India is the only country where the employer is entrusted to bear the entire financial expense of an employee on maternity leave. In other countries, part payment leave still reduces the chances of employers willing to opt for male employees; in some countries like Singapore the cost is borne by the employer for 8 months and the next 8 months by public funds. If the state governments do not share the cost, then such a policy turns to be more of a disadvantage.

Motherhood is not the only or the most important marker of a woman. Hence a re-examination of the Maternity leave Policy is of central importance in creating a society of equal opportunities, where women feel comfortable sharing the professional space with their male counterparts, juggling their personal and professional lives successfully. It will be the marker for a progressive and equitable society and thus, it ought not to be relegated to the background.

- Simreen Biswas

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What is wrong with India's maternity leave policy? What is wrong with India's maternity leave policy? Reviewed by EMN on March 01, 2019 Rating: 5

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