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Age Debate: Helping mothers, failing women

Published : Aug 18, 2016, 6:37 am IST
Updated : Aug 18, 2016, 6:37 am IST

Towards the culmination of the Monsoon Session, a Maternity Benefit Bill — proposed by the ministry of women and child development — was approved by the Rajya Sabha.

Ranjana Kumari
 Ranjana Kumari

Towards the culmination of the Monsoon Session, a Maternity Benefit Bill — proposed by the ministry of women and child development — was approved by the Rajya Sabha. The approved bill is a second amendment to the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961.

I welcome the bill and believe that there is a lot of merit in the approved Maternity Benefit Bill. The six months’ maternity leave would not only help the mother recuperate from the rigours of childbirth, but also give her time to bond with the newborn. This should be perceived as a time investment put into progressively shaping the future generation.

There is also an urgent need to address the majority of the Indian women who work in the informal sector. As per the ministry of labour and employment of India and International Labour Organisation (2012), only four per cent Indian female workers in the age group of 15-49 years, work in the formal sector. The Maternity Benefits Bill is biased towards permanent full-time workers who are registered by employers. It does not take into consideration the remaining 96 per cent women who work in the unorganised sector, who neither have an identifiable employer nor have a designated place of work. The Maternity Benefit Bill should not only take into its ambit, women working in the unorganised sector, but also those who are working under Mahatma Gandhi National Guarantee Employment Act, 2005.

For the four per cent, to whom the bill can possibly benefit, may also be at a disadvantage due to the competitive market in which the private sector operates. The employers in the sector perceive six months’ maternity leave as a time loss by a human resource, which is in direct proportion to the possible financial setback. This may adversely impact recruitment of women workforce into the private sector, especially if they are pregnant at the time of enrolment, regardless of their competency levels.

In instances when women avail complete maternity leave they have had to forgo increments after rejoining since “considerable” time is perceived to be lost in the duration of childbirth and child rearing.

For the women working in the private sector, the implementation of the bill would be more of a privilege as compared to women working in the public sector. The latter being a government-regulated sector, it would be more accountable for executing the Maternity Benefit Act.

Unfortunately for the private sector, it may be perceived as a liability because the employer would have to not only accommodate the absence of the resource, but also incur financial expenditure without immediate productive input. Due to this the interest of the private sector employer over-rides that of the working woman.

India is among the few countries to witness a drastic decline in participation of women in workforce, which has decreased to 27 per cent in 2011-12 from 37 per cent in 2004-05. According to the findings of our research, high percentage of women workers dropout at the reproductive age between 25 and 40 years. This was corroborated by a report by Accenture, which estimates that 72 per cent of Indian women have turned down or have not pursued an opportunity because of personal reasons. CSR study also found that only about 10 per cent women reported awareness about the fact that expectant mothers are entitled to medical bonus and about 21 per cent reported awareness about nursing break entitlement. Hence, an additional proposition would be to increase awareness about these benefits of the bill as well.

It is high time to create workplaces that respect the talent and hard work women bring in to boost the GDP. Therefore, the government has to ensure that this much-needed legislation/law is implemented effectively and strengthens women’s presence in the workforce and should act as enabler to women to continue in workforce and not become impediment.

Ranjana Kumari is director, Centre for Social Research

$It will be a liability for private firms

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It is hard not to remember our Prime Minister Narendra Modi (then chief minister of Gujarat) talking at length about the importance of employment of women in the country prior to parliamentary election during the BJP’s national council meet in January 2014 in New Delhi. He also emphasised that the country’s growth is incomplete without the progress of half of its population. He even cited a slew of measures that his government undertook in Gujarat.

With special provisions like skill training and tax relaxation to encourage active women participation in businesses, “Stand-Up India” earlier this year was a solid step in securing monetary independence of women entrepreneurs.

And then we entered India’s 70th year of Independence with a bang with the Rajya Sabha passing the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill 2016, which will protect the interests of women employees working in establishments with a workforce greater than 10.

In a nutshell, this bill seeks to increase paid maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks in all establishments, including the private sector. Additionally, it provides for 12 weeks’ leave for commissioning and adopting mothers whilst mandating companies with a workforce greater than 50 to provide crèche facilities within prescribed distance and allows four visits per day to the mother.

In his address in Parliament, minister for labour and employment Bandaru Dattatreya stated that this amendment would directly benefit 1.8 million women employees. Also, with the passage of this bill, India will rank third (after Canada and Norway) in the table of countries that grant maximum number of days as maternity leave.

While the direct benefits would be an increase in employee retainership by companies and a decrease in infant mortality rates, the provision of “work-from-home” clause for nursing mothers in this bill is an additional advantage left to the discretion of a company’s management and the employee.

Though a cursory search on the write-ups over this bill will produce a handful of naysayers, I would still strongly argue that this amendment is only likely to improve the employer-employee relationship and will prove to be beneficial in the longer run. One of the provisions in this bill simply mandates an establishment to intimate a woman, in writing, at the time of her appointment of the maternity benefits available to her. Such clarity at the beginning of employment and not to mention the increased allowance of a comfortable 26 weeks’ leave would ensure that there are fewer cases of woman employee absenteeism and/or of being fired on flimsy grounds and health related issues which are already covered under Section 10 and 12 of the existing act.

Another argument of resultant lesser intake of women would also not hold true in case of performance-driven establishments known to hire talented individuals as for them returns of the company are directly dependent on employees’ performance and not gender issues. This explains why several companies are in the habit of not only offering higher maternity benefits than stipulated but also additional benefits like counselling, medical camps and work-from-home option as per a report carried in an English daily.

With retaining women employees as a target, it is highly unlikely that any establishment worth its salt would be willing to let go of an able woman employee’s possible three decades of service for a mere six-plus months of maternity leave. Therefore, implementation of the amended law is bound to be mutually beneficial.

Furthermore, given the questions put-up in the Rajya Sabha on “paternity leave” and “shared responsibility” in this Monsoon Session, our government’s plan to extend maternity leave benefits to unorganised sector and Section 21 of the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961 which protects women against non-implementation, I’d say things are already looking-up for working women.

Nupur Sharma is advocate, Delhi high court

$It is a win-win for all

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