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Daily Editorial – Supporting Mothers: Maternity Benefits (Amendment), 2016

Context

  • The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is passed by the Parliament on March 10th.
  • The Bill is an amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, which protects the employment of women and entitles her to full-paid absence from work to take care of her child.
  • Once the President gives his assent to the Bill, working women in all establishments- public and private will be entitled to 26 weeks of maternity leave.
  • Let us have a look at the highlights, merits and demerits of the bill.

Highlights of Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Bill 2016

  1. Women working in the organised sector will now be entitled to paid maternity leave of 26 weeks, up from 12 weeks that makes India third on the list of countries with most maternity leave, after Canada and Norway where it is 50 weeks and 44 weeks respectively.
  2. The Bill also provides for maternity leave of 12 weeks to mothers adopting a child below the age of three months as well as to commissioning mothers (defined as a biological mother) who uses her egg to have a surrogate child.
  3. It also makes it mandatory for every establishment with more than 50 employees to provide creche facilities within a prescribed distance. The woman will be allowed four visits to the creche in a day. This will include her interval for rest.
  4. The new law will apply to all establishments employing 10 or more people and the entitlement will be for only up to first two children. For the third child onwards, the entitlement will be for only 12 weeks.
  5. The Bill has a provision under which an employer can permit a woman to work from home if the nature of work assigned permits her to do so. This option can be availed of, after the period of maternity leave, for a duration that is mutually decided by the employer and the woman.
  6. Every establishment will be required to make these benefits available to the women from the time of her appointment.

Merits of the Bill

  • Passage of the Maternity Benefit Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha is a landmark moment in the country’s efforts towards women-led development.
  • The amendments would ensure that full maternal care is provided during the full bloom period and will encourage more women to join the workforce in the organised sector as Industry reports suggest that 41% of women in technology tend to leave mid-career, most notably around childbearing years.
  • It will pave way for a healthy & secure mother and a well-nourished child and strengthen our efforts towards reducing the IMR and MMR which are parts of Sustainable Development Goal no. 3 as bill is made on recommendations of the World Health Organisation, which recommends exclusive breastfeeding of children for the first 24 weeks
  • Coming just after the Women’s day 2016 this could be called as a ‘humble gift’ to women in India as it will benefit about 1.8 million women and many who are seeking jobs in the organised sector.

Policy lacunae in the Bill:

  • It is a progressive step, but only if it leads one step closer to the scrutiny of the difficulties faced by unorganised workers who fall beyond the scope of any worthwhile labour welfare measures.
  • For many poor millions in the unorganised sector, the only support available is a small conditional cash benefit of Rs 6,000 during pregnancy and lactation offered under the Maternity Benefits Programme.
  • There is no enhancement in the paternity leave policy. Women cannot be continued to be viewed as the one responsible solely for child rearing. That in no way is equitable.
  • Mandating creche facilities to help women workers under the changed law is a forward-looking move, but there is no good oversight mechanism provided which will only be subverted by companies.
  • The provisions are not clear as to how the women will be protected from discrimination in the employment.

How could it have been balanced?

  • Health care should be treated as a right and deliveries handled without cost to women; the income guarantees during the 26-week period can be ensured through a universal social insurance system.
  • There would also be no discrimination against women in recruitment by employers who currently have to factor in benefit payments.
  • Conversely, women would not suffer the loss of income simply because they cannot remain in employment after childbirth.
  • At least 10 days of paternal leave could have been provided which is the norm already in many companies.

Conclusion

This is a big step towards women’s empowerment, but it can be achieved through universal initiatives, not by imposing conditionalities to avail benefits. The twin imperatives further are, to create more jobs for women in a diversified economy, and to provide social opportunity through maternal and child welfare measures to all the women.

Practice Questions

1. Maternity Benefits provided by the latest bill though progressive, but look like have fallen short of being a landmark reform. Comment.

2. What are the salient provisions of Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Act, 2015 and how will it help in women empowerment?

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