Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016

The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016 has been recently passed by the Parliament. The Bill seeks to amend the old Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 that entitles women to receive maternity benefits from the place of employment. This benefit includes full time paid absence from work for taking care of her child. The current Act applies to all establishments where 10 or more persons have been employed. But this Act provided for only 12 weeks of maternity leave which was found to be insufficient for a woman to recover from child birth. So, some of the amendments which have been termed as landmark provisions have been brought about through the Bill.

The Bill-What are its Salient Features?

Some of the amendments that the Bill seeks to bring in the Act are:-

  • Increase in weeks of leave– The Bill seeks to increase the number of weeks given for maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks. These 26 weeks will thus be completely paid leaves for women bearing child.
  • Adopting and commissioning mothers– The Bill also comes as a boon to the women who are willing to adopt baby below the age of three months and mothers who wish to obtain a child through surrogacy. These mothers will now get a fully paid leave for 12 weeks starting from the day the baby is handed over to the woman.
  • Scope of the amended Act– The legislature has now defined the applicability of the Act in more appropriate and rational terms. Now, the Act will apply not only to establishments employing more than 10 people but also to women upto the birth of their first two children. For the subsequent children the leave is to be restricted to 12 weeks.
  • Creche facilities– The Bill seeks to make it mandatory for every establishment having more than 50 employees to provide for crèche facilities within a prescribed distance. The women can be allowed to visit their children in the crèche four times a day in the intervals of rest.
  • Work from home– The Bill also seeks to make the option of work from home available to women employed in certain occupations where this option can be availed of. This option, if feasible is available to the women even after the period of maternity leave for an agreed upon period between the employee and the employer.

Problems with the Bill

Although the amendments seem to recognize a woman’s right to good health after pregnancy and her right to obtain a baby by other means, it has been accused by some as doing little for the women in the workforce. Some of the loopholes detected are:

  • Women in the unorganized sector– The previous Act applied mainly to the workforce in the organized sector. The amendment does not provide for anything specific for the unorganized sector either. So, it is difficult for the women working there to claim 26 weeks of maternity leave and then be assured of their job being retained till then by the employer.
  • Promoting discrimination-Increasing the period of leave without making any security provisions may prove counter- productive for women. When employers have the option to choose between male and female candidates they may give preference to a male candidate only on the ground that the woman has to be granted a six months leave from work.
  • Problematic for women in higher post– The women in a high post like in a post of leadership cannot afford to stay away from work for 26 weeks. In that case women may not be promoted to such posts by various organizations fearing this leave provision.
  • Pressure on women– Except in case of women having the option of working from home, the others have to struggle with the changed work environment that they will suddenly face after six months. They may have to work for additional hours to get used to the work or may have to spend a greater time in learning a new skill.

After all, the harsh truth is that unwritten workplace rules prevail in the organizations where women are informed that if they wish to grow their careers they are required to postpone the ideas of getting married and planning a family.

Conclusion

Inspite of all these criticisms, the Bill can be seen as a right step forward. The issues mentioned above do not arise due to the Bill but because of the general Indian mindset on working women. The Bill can only make provisions but not change the mindset. So, separate programmes should be conducted by the government to make the organizations understand the importance of women in the workforce along with their need to beget a child and take care of it. Work from home is a good alternative provided to ensure that women remain in touch with work. The need to regulate the unorganized sector is also of paramount importance as poor women who work for a living are mostly found there.

India is at present, the third country after Canada and Norway, which provide for a leave of 50 and 46 weeks respectively, in granting high periods of maternity leave. The move is a welcoming one but measures taken to ensure proper compliance and implementation of the amended provisions is equally necessary, without which the whole exercise will become futile.

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