Taking stock of the ongoing debate around Maternity Bill

Taking stock of the ongoing debate around Maternity Bill

By ANIRUDH VOHRA | | 27 August, 2016
Several women in India choose not to work after having a baby.
What does implementation of the new Maternity Bill hold for small and medium-scale industry owners? What about the roles of women in unorganised labour who still stand exempted from the new Bill?
There was a lot of stir in high business and political circles after the recent approval of the Maternity Benefit Bill, 1961, by the Rajya Sabha that seeks to extend maternity leaves from existing three months to six and a half months. Women and Child Development minister Maneka Gandhi in no time jumped the gun to declare how the new Bill was going to increase inequality in the corporate sector.

Although PepsiCo, one of the biggest multi-nationals in the food and beverages sector, in its recent press release stated — “At PepsiCo, we treasure our diverse workforce and take pride in creating support systems that promote a conclusive work environment. As part of our commitment towards building a culture that offers our women employees opportunities to build their careers, we were among the first companies to extend maternity leave from 3 months to 6 months starting last year. We recognized that the extended maternity leave and flexible work hours are important support factors during motherhood for women. We welcome the amendments in the Act as they ratify our beliefs and further extend this benefit to millions of women, enabling them to have a better work-life balance during maternity,” — businesses all over the country, including small and midsize, are far from accepting the Bill with such an open heart.

The question that remains now is in a country like India, whose economy thrives on these small and medium-scale industries, what does implementation of the new Bill hold for business owners belonging to those industries?

Deepak Jaju, director of Jaju Art Diamonds, a medium-sized company based out of Jaipur, who very recently became a father himself, says, “It’s a great move, as I’m completely for the proposed Bill. One needs time with a new born, so why should she not be awarded with that? As far as the business end goes, see we already do so much in the name of CSR, so why not this? The only drawback that can be is that even after you pay an employee for half a year and later (after the “work from home” option expires) after, when it’s time for her to return, what if she quits? As several women in India choose not to work after having a kid. In that case, it will make life difficult for the business owners.”

What makes this Bill, albeit it being a remarkable, pro-women move by the government, a flawed piece of legislation is that its biggest drawback includes exclusion of the role of women in the unorganized sector, who happen to form the majority of the working class in India: contractual labourers, farmers, casual workers.
 
The new law will facilitate “work from home” options for nursing mothers after the maternity leave duration gets over. But voicing a similar concern like Jaju, Rishab Buthra, director of Sheel Biotech, a company that employs hundreds of employees under its umbrella (i.e. including employees from its subsidiary companies) says, “I think if the law is implemented, our hiring patterns will prefer to hire men over women. Simply, as the expense of paying several women while they offer no/less productivity is a bad move. I’m not saying that it’s wrong, I completely agree, that a law like this should exist. But you need to understand that this law which exists in several other countries, like France, have the governments sharing this expense with the company, which is not the case here, making it a very expensive affair.”

But this kind of regressive mindset that pregnant women may not be “fit” to work is common in Indian workplaces. What makes this Bill, albeit it being a remarkable, pro-women move by the government, a flawed piece of legislation is that its biggest drawback includes exclusion of the role of women in the unorganized sector, who happen to form the majority of the working class in India: contractual labourers, farmers, casual workers.

Owner of SR Industries, a Rajasthan-based tile manufacturing unit, Hitesh Mehta, says, “This Bill, unfortunately, does not apply to my business as it falls in the unorganized sector. I have less than 10 people working for me.” Mehta who hires mostly on a contractual basis adds, “Women end up working till the seventh or eighth month of their pregnancy and that’s really harmful for both the mother and the child; given the kind of work that entails my company wherein you have to work with sand, dust and cement which makes the air one breathes very dusty and polluted.”

Even women working from home stand exempted from the proposed law, explains Varsha Kakkar, a Faridabad based freelance content creator: “Most of the people who work from home fall under the umbrella of contractual workers, i.e., their liability towards the company or the company’s liability towards them only exists till the work assigned to them is completed. Hence, the Bill holds no significance for them; freelancers like me, also those who are on assignments for IT companies as soft ware programmers, developers, designers etc.”

In a country entrenched in patriarchy, a strong entrepreneurial voice in the world of polo, Soniya Singh, owner of Delhi-based company Empress Polo, feels the new law can be a boon with some fine-tuning: “This Bill is half-baked until certain considerations are taken care of, for instance, under the law it is not stated as to how long  they (women) need to be employed in order to avail this benefit, neither does it give a lock-in period, that is after one has availed this leave it is incumbent on her to work with the company for a certain period.”

If the bill goes through, India will be among the 40 countries in the world where maternity leave is over 18 weeks. But it will benefit only about 15% of the female work force associated with multinationals and million-dollar corporations, leaving the rest in the lurch.  

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