26-Week Paid Maternity Leave Is A Step In The Right Direction, But…

The Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which was finally passed by the Lok Sabha on March 9, 2017, has been widely applauded.

This Bill makes 26 weeks of paid maternity leave mandatory for all women employed in the organised sector. This has more than doubled the period stipulated in the previous provision, which entitled women to only 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.

The new Law also has a provision of 12 weeks of paid maternity leaves for those women who adopt children below the age of 3 months. This move places India ahead of countries like the United States of America (which provides only 12 weeks of unpaid leaves to women) and Canada (which gives only 15 weeks of paid maternity leaves).

The most commendable thing about the recent amendment is that it mandates an employer with more than 50 employees to provide crèches nearby. It also grants women a maximum of four daily visits to the crèche. This provision therefore abides by the duty of making childcare a socially-shared responsibility.

As regards maternity leave policies, this move will place India in the top echelons of the 186 member states constituting the International Labour Organisation (ILO). In fact, this new policy can now be compared to the ones in European countries like Finland, Italy and Poland.

Pregnant working woman

While this may be an amazing policy to provide relief to lakhs of pregnant women, reduce their stress and also reduce the infant mortality rate, the amendment significantly excludes millions of women working in India’s unorganised sector.

According to the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO),

“In 2011-12, women constituted only 22.5% of India’s total workforce.”

Working women in India are mainly employed in the unorganised sector – a sector which employs 93% of India’s total workforce. The Bill therefore caters to the needs of a small percentage of India’s female workforce.

Women are tremendously exploited in the unorganised sector, and undeniably, this Bill comes as a major disappointment to them. A Parliamentary Standing Committee in 2007 had recommended the blanket application of this law to all working women. Unfortunately, this amendment chose to ignore the recommendation.

Disappointingly enough, the Bill completely ignores the need for paternity leaves. The Bill ignores the rapid emergence of nuclear families, which also necessitates the provision of paternity leaves. Although the Central Government provides 15 days of paid paternity leaves, the private sector has no such obligation. This is in blatant disregard of the fact that children also need the support of their fathers. The lack of this provision also directly contradicts the fact that childcare is a socially-shared responsibility.

Besides, the Bill makes the employer liable for paying complete wages to the women, even if they are on leave. The problem here lies in the fact that

“Many organsations will now be unwilling to hire women, in order to bypass this regulation.”

Furthermore, many organistions in India, especially startups, are finding it extremely difficult to pay for leaves. Some women employees also stop working for the organisation, once the period of paid leave is over, thereby causing further losses for the organisation.

The Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Bill, 2017, deserves applause for its attempt to provide relief to around 1.8 million women working in the organized sector. However, certain changes are necessary to address the aforementioned concerns. Only then can childcare emerge as a socially-shared responsibility, in its truest sense.

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