Parliament recently passed the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which is now awaiting the President’s nod. One of its most talked about highlights is the increase in maternity leave, from 12 weeks to 26, for employees in the formal sector. It also provides for a “work from home” option once the leave period ends.
With this, India joins Poland and Ireland, both of which offer 26 weeks of paid maternity leave.
“Maternity leave is very important for the health of the newborn baby because it enables the working woman to exclusively breast-feed her child for six months after birth, which is also recommended by the World Health Organization. This period also enables the working mother to recuperate herself before she returns to work as well as bond with the child,” says Maneka Gandhi, Union minister for women and child development.
It is definitely a quantitative leap, but will companies be comfortable giving employees six months off and ensuring the job is theirs when they return? Will it, in effect, lead to a decrease in demand for female labour? Women’s labour force participation in India is already low; between 2004-11, it saw a drop from 35% to 25%, according to a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), published in 2016.
We asked a panel of experts, all women, about their views on the Bill. Edited excerpts:
Shachi Irde, vice-president and executive director, Catalyst India WRC, a non-profit that works to create and expand opportunities for women in the corporate sector
The passage of the Bill shows that organizations and the government understand the business case for having more women employees in the workforce. Our research shows that women employees stay longer with an organization throughout their careers. In a 35-year career span for any woman, giving a six-month or one-year break (in case of two children) will only result in more loyalty, productivity and engagement from them.
The next logical step is for organizations to take steps to ensure the smooth reintegration of women returning to the workplace after their leave. It could be done by implementing returnship programmes and fair performance management systems that do not penalize women for maternity breaks as well as by making flexible work arrangements a business strategy for all eligible employees.
An option that could be worth considering by the government would be to bear or share the cost of paid maternity leave; this will act as an incentive to hire more women. This is also a progressive practice followed by countries such as Sweden, which has had a minister for gender equality for more than six decades.
Rupa Subramanya, economist and independent researcher
With higher maternity benefits, one would expect an increase in women’s labour supply. However, it will only decrease employers’ demand for female employees as the cost to them will increase. Therefore, on balance, it’s not evident that this policy will lead to greater women’s employment. It could even lead to a drop.
In terms of providing benefits, comparing India to Scandinavian countries, which are at a much higher level of economic development, makes zero sense. Remember, all these countries in the West only implemented generous social welfare legislation because their per capita income levels are much higher than India’s.
This amended Bill should be repealed and, before any legislation is passed, a cost-benefit analysis must be undertaken and wider group of stakeholders, going beyond social activists and trade unions, should be consulted.
Ritu Dewan, president, Indian Association for Women’s Studies, a professional association that aims to further women’s studies
The Bill is full of gaps—it excludes the majority (the informal sector workers), doesn’t mention paternity leave (reinforcing patriarchal norms), limits coverage to two live births, placing the onus of a small family on the woman, and disregards the impact of additional children on her health. Most importantly, the Bill talks about providing a crèche facility for companies where the number of workers is 50 and above. What about companies with fewer workers? Also, it includes adoption, which is good, but only for a baby less than three months old. Why just three months?
Swagata Raha, consultant, Centre for Child and the Law (National Law School of India University, Bengaluru), and Development Management Institute, Patna
The Bill was an opportunity to modify social stereotypes about women’s role in child-rearing and the male-centric nature of the workplace. Unfortunately, the Bill not only reinforces stereotypes, it is also likely to have the opposite effect on women’s employment. A 2014 ILO report, “Maternity And Paternity At Work—Law And Practice Across The World”, observes, “When employers are statutorily mandated to shoulder the full direct cost of work-family reconciliation measures, for instance, by financing wage replacement during maternity and paternity leave (employer liability) or workplace childcare facilities—this may create disincentives to hire women and workers with family responsibilities.”
The Bill is likely to open the door for private organizations to adopt discriminatory hiring practices and exclude women based on their age and marital status. Practices such as inquiring about a woman’s marital status or her ability to balance responsibilities at work and home, will be encouraged. The measures in the Bill, apart from perpetuating gender stereotypes around childcare, are also likely to trigger hostility towards working mothers for the “work from home” benefit, one that should actually be available to all employees.
The Bill should ensure that the burden to provide these benefits is not imposed solely on employers. India should study the social security schemes that are operational in at least 107 countries, in which the burden is shared by employers, employees and government in varying degrees. Second, the Bill should provide for paternity leave as well as parental and family leave, not just maternity leave. Most importantly, the Bill should contain an anti-discrimination clause to ensure that the recipients of the benefits under the Bill, in public or private employment, are not discriminated against on grounds of sex, pregnancy, maternity or family responsibilities in any aspect of employment.
The Scandinavian and Nordic countries follow a social insurance model where the burden is not just on the employer, and they recognize parental and paternity leave besides maternity leave. The two vital lessons for India from the models in these countries is that parenting is not exclusively the woman’s responsibility and the obligation to support employees with family responsibilities has to be shared. In the absence of this, the gender gap is likely to widen further.
Urvashi Singh, senior vice-president (human resources), Genpact
Gender diversity in the entry-level talent pool is not the concern of the hour. But as a woman progresses through critical life stages like marriage and childbirth, the chances of dropping out of the workforce increase gradually. This leaking talent pipeline is one of the biggest challenges for every organization, across the spectrum. Adequate support from the organization—be it 26 weeks of maternity leave or daycare facilities—is crucial to ensure they don’t leave the workforce.
Genpact increased its maternity leave to 26 weeks in January. Applicable to not only birth mothers but also adopting and commissioning (surrogate) mothers, the maternity leave is accessible to women employees for giving birth to or adopting up to two children. At our India offices, about 200 children of employees avail the in-house and near-office daycare facilities. With the supportive ecosystem that welcomes a woman returning from maternity leave at Genpact, we have had a 96% deployment rate for returning moms and have managed to retain 88% of this crucial talent pool.
In most cases, maternity breaks are not situations of exigency. We always have adequate well-planned measures in place so that work is not hampered in any way while a woman employee is away on maternity leave.
Number of weeks with pay offered across the world
UK: 52 Greece: 43
Slovak Republic: 34
Czech Republic: 28
Israel: 26 Poland: 26
* The US is the only developed country that doesn’t provide any paid maternity leave. Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development