TomorrowMakers

The Maternity Benefit Act upgrades the working conditions of employed women, both during pregnancy and as new mothers. See what this means for you?

What does the new Maternity Benefit Act have in store for women?

The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017, which was passed by the Lok Sabha on March 9 last year and subsequently ratified by the President, adds a number of benefits and new provisions to the old version of the Act, thereby upgrading the working conditions of employed women, both during pregnancy and as new mothers. 

The Act has its share of pros and cons, with its critics arguing that the provisions do not cover the millions of underprivileged women employed in India’s unorganised sector, as it does not define what constitutes a ‘working woman’. Supporters, however, point to the several benefits that have been added. 

Before taking a closer look at the new Act to understand it better, let’s gain an understanding of what exactly constitutes maternity benefit.

Maternity benefit

Maternity benefit is defined as the payment or other allowance made by the state or an employer to a woman employee during pregnancy or after childbirth. This includes the leaves, health insurance and working conditions that working women are legally entitled to when they give birth to a child. 

Generally, an employer is legally obliged to offer this facility to pregnant employees during this time, though in some countries such as Swaziland, Lesotho, and Papua New Guinea, female employees have to forgo pay if they go on maternity leave. 

Unbelievably, even in the US, only a tiny portion of the female workforce – the elite – enjoys this benefit; in the US this is a privilege for a select few, not a right for the masses.

Otherwise, in most cases, the law requires that leave with pay be granted for childbirth, with India just burnishing its old law even more. However, the duration of maternity leave differs from country to country – it can be anywhere from six to 30 weeks. 

India lays down 26 weeks, depending on the number of similar leaves the employee has already availed of, while Sweden offers 56 weeks at 80% of the total monthly salary.

India’s amendments

As indicated, the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961 did grant women workers paid leave before and after childbirth; the new Act merely adds some new provisions and modifies some of the old ones. 

Here’s a summary of the major changes:

Unchanged: Basic eligibility

  • Eligibility requirements by and large remain unaltered.
  • Any factory, shop, or establishment and companies with 10 or more employees on its rolls – even mines and plantations – come under the purview of the law.
  • The claimant for maternity leave benefits is required to be with her employer at the time for at least 80 days during the 12 months before the date of delivery.
  • The Act does not differentiate between women hired directly and those recruited through an agency – as long as she’s drawing a salary from her employer, she’s eligible.
Here is what New Maternity Benefit Act has in store for women?

New: Surrogacy, adoption

  • The boldest change initiated by the new Act, perhaps, is the introduction of leave for mothers who will have a baby through adoption or surrogacy.
  • Women who have babies through surrogacy will be known as Commissioning Mothers.
  • Those who adopt an infant below three months will be known as Adopting Mothers.
  • Both will get 12 weeks of maternity leave from the date of handing over of the baby.

New: Crèche etc.

Apart from the new clauses related to adoption and surrogacy, there are some more significant changes that have been suggested under the new Act, such as: 

  • The old Act did not have any provision to allow women to work from home during pregnancy or after delivery. This is now allowed – even after the duration of paid maternity leave, on mutually agreed terms between employee and employer. Also, it will be on the condition that the nature of work allows the employee to do so.
  • Under the amended Act, shops or establishments with more than 50 employees now have to provide crèche facilities for children of new mothers among employees, so that mothers are not separated from their children because of work.
  • The amendment also allows the women concerned to make four visits to the crèche every day, though this includes rest intervals within the time period for these visits. Also, it is not entirely clear if these facilities would come with a charge or not.

Employers must notify all women employees of the benefits they are eligible to receive under the Maternity Benefit Act. This notification should be in writing as well as in electronic form.

Criticism

While the extension of maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks has been welcomed by all and sundry, critics have also pointed out certain drawbacks of the amended Act:

  • The first grouse has been touched upon earlier – the new Act benefits only a small section of Indian women employees.
  • It does not define the term ‘working women’, which means the Act ignores the fact that the bulk of India’s women work in the unorganised sector.
  • It does not address the issue of women who don’t have fixed employers.
  • It promotes the stereotype that raising a child is only the woman’s work, as it does not address the issue of paternity leave.

Last words

According to WHO recommendations, new mothers are advised to breastfeed their babies for the first six months to prevent malnourishment and protect them from allergies and illness. The amended Bill allows such women paid leave for over six months (26 weeks) to look after and breastfeed their babies. This should be lauded.

The Bill is also expected to retain the size of the female workforce in the country, and even help it swell, given that many women quit work after having a baby. As studies have shown, the more the number of women in the national labour force, the better is the economy.

India is now among those nations that have recognised the needs of women in their workforce – introducing a crèche at the workplace is a case in point. This is indeed a progressive move and something we can all be proud of. 

Yet, what should serve to be a dampener is what critics have pointed out: what about the huge population of women in the unorganised sector? Without a helping hand for them, are we really protecting our female workers?

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