At a time when amendments to labour laws are invariably curtailing worker rights and welfare measures, the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act (MBA), 2017 passed earlier this year is certainly welcome.
- Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced with a flourish on 31 December 2016 that the amount to be given to pregnant and lactating mothers would be raised to Rs 6,000. • However, the union cabinet has recently curtailed the assistance given under this programme to only the first live birth. In any case, this programme has been operational since 2010 as the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana (IGMSY) in over 50 districts
- The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, passed in the Lok Sabha grants women 26 weeks of fully paid maternity leave for up to two surviving children as opposed do the earlier 12 weeks.
- The amended MBA, estimated to cover 1.8 million women in the organised sector, applies to all establishments that employ more than 10 persons.
- It is mandatory for those employing more than 50 persons or 30 women to run a crèche either in the office or within a radius of 500 metres and allow the mother four visits to it.
- If the nature of the work permits and the employer is willing, the new mother can work from home after availing of the paid leave.
- Commissioning mothers in surrogacy and women adopting a child below three months will also be allowed 12 weeks of paid leave.
- Research and experience across the world have established that maternity leave decreases the risk of infant mortality and, due to improved breastfeeding rates, leads to better infant nutrition. It also significantly helps the mothers to cope with stress.
- Undoubtedly, these and other changes in the law are praiseworthy.
On the flip side:
- The MBA leaves out 90% to 97% of the total female workforce in the country which works in the unorganised sector like domestic workers, agricultural labourers and home-based ones.
- The amendments also ignore paternity leave even though male central government employees are eligible for 15 days of such leave and the trend is growing (albeit slowly) in the private sector. This obviously enforces the patriarchal belief that childcare is entirely the woman’s job.
- As activists have pointed out, considering the MBA 2017, the MBP is discriminatory. The union cabinet has also not paid heed to the demands that the restrictions under the IGMSY like the two-child norm and the age of marriage should be removed.
- When the demand is for universal and unconditional maternity entitlements which will also cover the most vulnerable women in the unorganised sector, restricting the MBP to the first child seems to be a regressive move.
- The problem is that these changes do not go far enough or are not wide enough to cover the women and families who really need these benefits.
- They also do not cover areas that would have paved the way towards equitable parenting.
- Ironically, even before these amendments could prove their benefits, last month the union cabinet made changes in the Maternity Benefit Programme (MBP) (not to be confused with the act) that lopped off a large number of eligible beneficiaries.
- Clearly, this is a case of not only giving too little but also giving with one hand and taking back with the other. The latest changes also discriminate between different sections of women workers.
- Given the socio-economic issues arrayed around female employment in India, almost every commendable welfare measure brings with it an in-built apprehension that employers will count the costs and simply shun employing women. The MBA will not be an exception.
- As is usually the case with welfare measures that are not either fully or partly funded by the government and where the private sector employer has to bear the financial “burden” alone, there is the real fear that either the MBA will suffer in its implementation or small and medium employers will simply not employ women.
- This has to be seen in the light of International Labour Organization (ILO) data which shows that since 2005, the percentage of working-age women participating in the Indian labour force has dropped by 10%. Optimists, however, point out that facilities like the crèche and extended paid maternity leave will dissuade the junior- to middle-level woman employee in the organised sector from leaving the workforce.
- Giving women maternity benefits has been like a double-edged sword, not only in India but even in advanced economies given the general employment and female participation in the workforce.
- Special benefits to women working in the formal sector need to be accompanied by ways to ensure that these are not used to penalise those who seek employment.
- They also need to extend to women in the informal/unorganised sector.