“This is my humble gift to women, a day after the world celebrated the International Women’s Day.” – Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya said as he introduced the Maternity Bill in Lok Sabha on 9th March 2017.
It is a gift indeed to all the women employees struggling to keep their feet in the job market, in the face of new motherhood challenges. Till now, the end of the three months paid leave period after childbirth marked the beginning of a fresh set of tribulations for them – making suitable arrangements for day care, rushing from work to home to spend quality time with the babies, running around in times of emergency and literally falling to bits with the physical, emotional and mental stress.
But now, there’s reason to rejoice for all mothers keen on continuing their career track. Albeit a bit belated, but this women’s day, the call to support and empower women has not merely been a lip service. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, passed in the Rajya Sabha in August 2016, has been passed in the Lok Sabha as well in March 2017. This bill is an amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, which protects the employment of women and entitles her to full-paid absence from work to take care for her child.
Discussed below are some of the salient features of the bill. Also examined are areas of consideration for future action to ensure that this bill does not turn into a toothless tiger. The salient features are:
- Paid maternity leave increased from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for up to two surviving children. This will allow the mother to take care of the child during his/her most formative stage.
- Paid maternity leave of 12 weeks to commissioning mothers and adopting mothers.
- Provision to facilitate “work from home” to a mother with mutual consent of the employee and the employer, in situations where such an arrangement is possible, after a mother (includes biological, commissioning and adopting mothers) has exhausted her maximum maternity leave entitlement.
- Making it mandatory for establishments with 50+ employees, to have the facility of crèche either onsite or as a shared common facility within such distance as may be prescribed by rules. This amendment takes cognizance of the growing concerns around childcare, particularly in urban areas, where nuclear families are a norm and aims to make childcare a collective responsibility.
- Employees to allow four visits to the crèche by the woman daily, including the interval for rest allowed to her.
- Every establishment to intimate in writing and electronically to every woman at the time of her initial appointment about the benefits available under the Act.
However, in view of certain clauses of the amendment that might encourage discriminatory practices against women, and that some critical aspects may have currently been missed out, recommendations for future action on the bill are:
- Inclusion of a non-discrimination clause in the bill so that no person is discriminated against in employment for having availed any parental benefits.
- It is currently anticipated that the bill will benefit about 1.8 million women in the organized sector. However, for its impact to be more far reaching particularly among women in the country’s unorganized sector such as contractual workers, farmers, casual workers, self-employed women and housewives, it needs inclusion of more customized clauses.
- Inclusion of a clause for paternity benefits, given that in many nuclear families the responsibility of child care is also shared by the father.
- The amendment in providing 12 weeks to adoptive and commissioning mothers of children less than 3 months fails to borrow from the Guidelines Governing Adoption of Children, 2015 that provides adoptive leave to parents irrespective of the age of the child. This warrants better cohesion between various laws for beneficiaries to fruitfully avail benefits.
A successful implementation of these amendments will ensure that the bill serves its purpose of safeguarding women’s interest at work. The amended bill does need some fine-tuning or inclusions to be more impactful, but what can be stated without contest is that passing of this bill is a “small step for mothers but a huge step for womankind“!!!