Despite Promises, Women in Informal Sector 'Still Waiting for Fair Maternity Benefits'

Activists point out that women in the formal sector are given six months paid leave under the new Maternity Benefits Act, while those in the informal sector struggle to get just Rs 5,000.

At the press conference on Tuesday. Credit: Special arrangement

At the press conference on Tuesday. Credit: Special arrangement

New Delhi: Pregnant or taking care of a baby, and running around to get just Rs 5,000: this is the state of affairs for the bulk of Indian women working in the informal sector.

Six mothers – Uma, Mamta, Ruby, Rajni, Asha and Bibyaani – were at a press conference in Delhi on Tuesday to discuss their struggles in claiming rights that the Indian state has guaranteed to them.

These women struggled to get a meagre Rs 5,000, even as women in the organised private sector have last year been granted six months of paid leave for their pregnancies under the Maternity Benefits Act.

Take the case of Bibyaani Minjh, who is a construction worker, as is her husband. As a maternity entitlement, she was due to get Rs 30,000 from the Labour Welfare Board. At that time, she did not need an Aadhaar card, but later was asked to provide one. The details on her Aadhaar card do not match her other documents. Her claim was rejected on this ground.

Ruby was unable to claim maternity benefits for either child. Credit: Special arrangement

Ruby was unable to claim maternity benefits for either child. Credit: Special arrangement

Ruby, a resident of Delhi, tried to claim the entitlement at the birth of her first child, and then her second, but wasn’t able to – her forms were rejected both times. She says she would have “spent the money on things like iron supplements and a better diet”.

“`Vandana’ in the scheme’s name of ‘Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana’ denotes that a pregnant woman is a goddess. On the one hand, there is such valorisation of women, and on the other, a pregnant woman is being treated treating like a beggar,” said Vandana Prasad from the Public Health Resource Network.

The struggles of these women echo those of thousands of others – government estimates say that only 96,000 out of 53 lakh women received maternity entitlements as of January 2018.

Things are better in the formal sector

Last year, women in the private and organised sector received a boost under the Maternity Benefits Act: they were given paid maternity leave up to 26 weeks.

But, about 95% of working women in India are, in fact, in the private and informal sector, not covered by this Act. The wage compensation these women receive is both infrequent and inadequate. The central government had promised them Rs 6,000 first, and then last year reduced it to Rs 5,000 or Rs 6,000. And activists say even that amount, meagre as it is, is not reaching pregnant women.

Rs 5,000 is promised to pregnant women under the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) and another Rs 1,000 is supposed to be given if they undergo an institutional delivery, under the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY). But in 2013, the National Food Security Act 2013 had already guaranteed all pregnant women a single amount of Rs 6,000. Before the re-hashed PMMVY, the government was dispensing Rs 6,000 under a pilot scheme, called the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojna (IGMSY).

Asha, a construction worker, is still waiting for maternity entitlements. Credit: Special arrangement

Asha, a construction worker, is still waiting for maternity entitlements. Credit: Special arrangement

Merging and diluting maternity entitlements

With the recent move to merge the implementation of PMMVY and JSY schemes, the government has managed to give all pregnant women Rs 1,000 less if they don’t opt for an institutional delivery. This merger is done “to appear to meet the legal threshold of Rs 6,000” says a press release from the Right to Food campaign. The campaign was instrumental in advocating for the India’s food security law.

Apart from the merger, activists point out that there has also been dilution.

First, the renovated PMMVY offers this compensation only for the first child. Second, the amount of money given to women in the informal sector under the PMMVY falls far short of what women in the formal sector get under the Maternity Benefits Act. The campaign calls this “discrimination and inequality”.

PMMVY is meant to be wage compensation, just as six months of paid leave is wage compensation for women who fall under the Maternity Benefits Act.

Also read: After Ignoring Mandated Maternity Entitlements, Modi Makes a Recycled Promise

But activists on the campaign say that “it is unacceptable that a wage compensation of less than half of minimum wages, that too only for one birth, should be the norm for the rest of women under the PMMVY”. So while women in the private sector get six months of paid leave, the Rs 6,000 under the PMMVY is barely equal to five weeks of minimum wages in Bihar.

On this, the campaign demands “universal, unconditional maternity entitlements equivalent to wages for at least six months at no less than the prevailing minimum wages”. They say this will make the spirit of the rights equal for women in both the formal and informal sector.