Politics

Rajya Sabha Passes Maternity Leave Bill; Activists Advocate Paternity Leave

With the Rajya Sabha passing The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill,2016, six months of maternity leave will soon be a reality for women working in the organised sector.

rajya-sabha-PTI

Representational image of the Rajya Sabha. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: The Rajya Sabha unanimously gave its assent to the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, yesterday, scripting a much-needed chapter for working women’s rights in India.

Though the Bill was first meant to be introduced in the Lok Sabha, for unstated reasons, it wasn’t. With just two days left in the monsoon session, the Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha – as a Bill introduced in the upper house doesn’t lapse at the end of a parliamentary session.

Even though it will take a while for the Bill to become an Act, the assent, given through a voice vote by both the ruling party and the opposition, will go towards benefiting an estimated 1.8 million women across the country, who work in the organised sector. It will help them avail of six months of maternity leave, unlike the present form of the act which only provides three months of maternity leave – which was widely considered inadequate by working women and lead many to take a break from work.

The amendment – from the present 12 to 26 weeks – will not only encourage more women to continue working after giving birth, thereby helping raise the percentage of working women in the country, as per Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women empowerment and child development – but it will also help produce healthier babies as a working mother will now be able to breastfeed her child for six months, as recommended by paediatricians across the world.

Supporting the amendment during a debate in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday, Gandhi said, “The Bill has its roots in malnutrition as breastfeeding the child is recommended which is not possible unless the mother is in physical proximity of the child.” She also pointed out that, “After giving birth to a child, a woman’s body needs to heal over a period of time. It is a very stressful time for the mother, who should be with the child.”

Like the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, the new law will be applicable to all organisations that employ more than ten people. It will now protect a woman’s employment, her full salary and other benefits while she is absent from work due to maternity leave being extended to 26 weeks. A female employee will be able to utilise this benefit for two surviving children.

Though the Bill comes under the union labour ministry (the union labour minister moved the Bill for consideration on Thursday), it is Gandhi’s ministry that seems to have pressured the government into bringing in the required changes.

“I wanted eight months of maternity leave but the corporate sector is not in favour of it,” Gandhi said at a press meet organised by Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC) recently. With the new amendments in place, “India will rise to the third position in the list of most weeks of maternity leave given to working women after Canada and Norway,” said the labour minister. While Canada gives 50 weeks, Norway provides 44 weeks of maternity leave.

Women from a wide cross section of society have welcomed the move. Veteran journalist Coomi Kapoor, one of the first women to break the glass ceiling in the field of media, wrote on the Whatsapp group of the IWPC, “Some of you may be interested to know that when we were reporters, we got only six weeks [of maternity leave], that too under the extraordinary stipulation that three [weeks] had to be availed before delivery [of the baby] and three [weeks] after it. Anyone who delivered earlier than the projected date lost those three weeks.” The news organisation she worked for then told “the women reporters that they come under the Factories Act and therefore can’t avail maternity leave for 12 weeks.”

Ranjana Kumari, Delhi-based women rights activist said, “We are happy with this development since we have been campaigning for it for a long time.”

Some reservations

Kumari, however, expressed apprehension about its implementation. “Implementation of even the old law was a challenge; this will be an even bigger one. There is no mechanism in place to monitor its implementation and lodge complaints against those who don’t honour it. 99% of the corporate sector have subverted it and will continue to do so. Even their interview boards will try and avoid employing a woman of child bearing age fearing she will take leave for six months,” said the Director of Centre for Social Research. As per a study conducted by CSE, the Centre for Science and Environment, some time ago “in three sectors, women faced discrimination at [their] workplace during their maternity leave. They missed out on increments, promotion[s], etcetera ”

She also underlined a lacunae in the Bill – the lack of provision to institutionalise paternity leave. “The parallel demand of women activists has been to include paternity leave in the Bill too. The logic given by the ministry for the latest amendment is that we need to create a mother and child bond, promote breastfeeding and also look into the fact that a woman needs time to recuperate after birth. But we ask, what about the father’s bond with the child? What about the father’s role in raising the child?” said Kumari.

During Thursday’s debate, Anu Agha, a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, raised the point. While most male members harped on the need for breastfeeding of a child and therefore a mother’s need to be physically near it, Agha said, “Paternity leave is important because men leave childcare entirely to the mother and then glorify motherhood. There should not be overt or subtle pressure on a woman to breastfeed her child, it is her decision.”

In 1999, the Centre, through a notification under the Central Civil Services (Leave) Rule 551 (A), made provisions for paternity leave for a male Central government employee with less than two surviving children, for a period of 15 days in order to take care of his wife and the new born. A man in this situation can avail this of leave before or within six months from the date of the child’s delivery. He would be paid a leave salary equal to the pay last drawn. This also applies when a couple adopts a child.

The extended maternity leave, however, doesn’t apply to surrogate mothers. The point was raised by Bahujan Samaj Party member Satish Mishra, who felt the latest benefit should have been extended to them as well. Gandhi responded to the contention saying, “The very idea behind the enhanced leave is to create the mother and child bond. It doesn’t apply to a surrogate mother as she gives up the child.” That a surrogate mother is given only 15 days of sick leave didn’t go down well with members like the DMK’s Kanimozhi.

Kumari also felt, “It is time we address the rights of women in the unorganised sector too, as a large number of women in India are employed in agriculture, various house-based jobs and cottage industries and as household helps. What about those mothers’ need to have a bond with their child? No labour protection law has so far addressed this issue. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector instituted by the Central government as an advisory body and an industry watchdog should be extended to all states; it should particularly address the employee-employer relationship in the sector to discern who are these employers and what responsibility do they have towards an employee.”

Brinda Karat, left leader too welcomed it but added, “I feel restricting the benefits to only two children is wrong and amounts to punishing the (third) infant.”

She also expressed concern that “the government plans to bring a Bill [Small Factory Amendment Act] that would take smaller sized factories out of its [Maternity Bill] ambit and this will negate the Act. Our party raised it during the debate but the government did not give the assurance that it will be applicable to all sectors and that no  legislation will be brought that will undermine the Act.”