India’s Maternity Bill: Is It Inclusive?

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India's new Maternity Bill doubles the amount of paid leave on offer to working mothers. But can it reach the poor?
 The Government of India has doubled the amount of maternity leave available for pregnant women, in a move that promises to help working women better balance their careers with childcare. The passage of The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill raises the leave expectant mothers are eligible for from 12 weeks to 26.

This places India third after Canada and Norway in terms of the amount of paid maternity leave on offer. With the United States yet to enact any form of paid maternity leave legislation, India’s move has been heralded as progressive – and exceeds International Labour Organization (ILO) requirements.

The Bill amends the 1961 Maternity Benefits Act – which mandated establishments with more than ten employees to provide fully-paid leave to pregnant workers. What’s changed is the ambit and the amount of leave. Adoptive mothers will be eligible for leave, and companies with more than 50 employees must maintain a crèche – which pregnant employees can visit up to four times a day. Women will also have the option of working from home, if the work permits it.

The amendment is well-timed – female labour force participation in India has been on the decline since 2005 – with India having one of the widest gender gaps in the G-20. An ILO report ascribed this to a combination of factors – more women enrolling in high education instead of for a job, and an unwillingness to disregard household roles.

Companies often do not hire women who seem likely to be giving birth soon – either if they are about to be married, or if they’re already pregnant. While discrimination on this basis is illegal, making a case for it in court requires nuance – and time.

The requirements for continuous employment of more than 80 days keep the informal sector out of the bill’s ambit. In the construction sector alone, up to 15 million women work as informal labourers on short-term contracts. Studies have shown that they are mostly excluded from any form of maternal relief, relying largely on borrowing and loans to fund their natal care. Where the formal sector is obliged to pay its employees when they go on maternity leave, informal employers have no such obligations – with nothing on paper, nothing can be demanded.

While the bill has extended the range of legislation, keeping the onus on companies to pay for maternity leave might have an effect on hiring. In contrast, government schemes that compensate women for lost work-hours during pregnancy might be having a stronger effect – Tamil Nadu has had a welfare scheme for pregnant women since 1987. The payout is high, at Rs.12,000 per person – eclipsing benefits under existing schemes like Janani Suraksha Yojana.

Pregnant women across India can also avail of a direct bank-transfer bonus of Rs. 6,000 if they give birth in a hospital and allow their children to be vaccinated, as announced by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in his new year’s eve address. However, this amount was mandated by the 2013 Food Security Act, and is not as an outcome of new legislation.

Extending the range of maternity care to the informal sector will greatly improve the conditions of working women in India. A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Medical Science and Public Health found that 22 percent of those sampled went to work during their pregnancies – with most of them facing adverse health effects as a result. Of them, three in 31 pregnancies resulted in stillborn infants.

With informal sector workers risking destitution if they don’t go to work, and damaged health if they do – encompassing them into maternity leave policies is the only respite from an iron and a hot place.

There’s another aspect of childrearing that the bill omits – that of paternity leave. Without it, the onus of childrearing is left solely to India’s women. But Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi felt men would take it as a form of ‘holiday’.

How India’s corporate sector will welcome the bill will be a factor of whether companies are willing to hire women who might require maternity benefits at some point. While some studies have pointed to higher employee retention in companies that have maternity leave policies, every country will have a different reaction to new policies. India’s tryst with a gender-neutral workplace is only just beginning.

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