Amended Maternity Benefit Law Goes A Long Way, But Has A Long Way To Go Still

The new law allows maternity leave up to 12 weeks for women who adopt a child below the age of 3 months, and for commissioning mothers (in cases of surrogacy)

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Maternity Benefits act

The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2017, passed by Parliament last week, has made 26 weeks of paid maternity leave mandatory for all women employed in the organised sector. The more than doubling of the existing entitlement of 12 weeks has lifted India to a small group among the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO’s) 186 member states with the most progressive maternity leave policy.

The new law allows maternity leave up to 12 weeks for women who adopt a child below the age of 3 months, and for commissioning mothers (in cases of surrogacy). It also makes childcare a socially-shared responsibility by making it mandatory for employers with 50 or more employees to provide crèches in close vicinity of the workplace, and by allowing women up to four daily visits to the crèche.

While all these aspects make for a milestone legislation on the road to reducing gender inequality at work and bringing down maternal and infant mortality in India, the amendment of the 46-year-old law still leaves out the vast numbers of women in the informal sector, and in smaller, fragmented establishments.

It also fails to acknowledge the need for paternity leave, especially in view of the “double burden” on working women who still have to shoulder a disproportionate share of unpaid caregiving. As per UNDP’s Human Development Report 2015, women clock 297 minutes of unpaid work daily, compared to just 31 minutes for men.

The government concedes that the new law will benefit just about 1.8 million women in the organised sector, thus leaving out 90% of the female labour force that is employed in the unorganised/informal sector — these are women who also do not have any security of employment or income.

This lacuna in the existing Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, was pointed out in a Parliamentary Standing Committee report in 2007. The Committee had recommended that the existing law be made universally applicable until the government could bring a separate law to cover women in the unorganised sector. The amendment in the law has not taken this recommendation on board.

The panel had also recommended relaxation of the condition that only establishments employing over 10 people would have to give mandatory maternity leave. “In the era of globalisation”, it noted, “with the fast advancement of technologies and computerisation, the requirement of employing 10 or more persons in establishments to avail the benefit of the Act has become irrelevant”.

The panel also pointed to the increasingly nuclear structure of families to push for paid paternity leave. This suggestion too has not been accepted in the amended legislation.

The ILO records that all countries offer some form of paid maternity leave; the exceptions being Suriname and Tonga which have no provisions for any leave following childbirth. The US and Papua New Guinea offer unpaid leave. In most developed countries, maternity leave wage benefits are paid through social insurance and public funds, while in the developing nations it is often the liability of the employer.

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