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Labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya says the government believes three months of maternity leave is less and that it needs to be increased to 26 weeks. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya says the government believes three months of maternity leave is less and that it needs to be increased to 26 weeks. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Firms waking up to the need for better maternity benefits

Many companies are now offering flexible working hours, better facilities and longer paid maternity leave

New Delhi: Tuleeka Haledar quit her job in a content management firm after her Mumbai-based employer denied her more than three months of maternity leave. -Two years hence, Haledar feels that she should have negotiated with her boss to retain the job without compromising her personal life.

“Six months of maternity leave is a must and companies must realize that it is a necessity for women employees," she said.

Many companies are now ushering in change to accommodate women employees with flexible working hours and better facilities besides paid maternity leave of not less than six months—double the three months stipulated by law.

On Monday, Hitachi Consulting Software Services India Pvt. Ltd said it will offer six months of paid maternity leave, joining others who have taken the same step.

“As an organization, we treasure our diverse workforce and take pride in creating support systems that promote a conducive work environment," said Feroze Mohammed, executive vice-president at Hitachi Consulting Software Services India.

He said the change in existing policies would enable women to establish a better work-life balance during “life events such as maternity".

Vikas Kaul, vice-president of human capital at Hitachi Consulting said the company found several women employees were taking leave for six months and some even up to one year.

“While several of them are coming back, some are dropping out," Kaul said, adding his firm generally wants women employees to come back to work, hence it changed the policy so that while they continue to build their career, they can address their personal priorities as well.

“Approximately 35% of our last year’s hires were women, which bears testimony to the value we place on gender diversity—and it has increased visibly in the last couple of years," he said.

Kaul said when the company made the decision at its recent board meeting, it received a “huge cheer" from women workers as a mark of approval.

“So from now on, we are offering six months of paid maternity leave, and another six months of flexible work hours among other in-house facilities," he said.

Beverage maker Coca-Cola India Pvt. Ltd, pharmaceuticals firm Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd and diversified Hinduja Group are among those firms who have recently taken such moves.

Healthcare start-up Care24 (Aegis Care Advisors Pvt. Ltd) too has announced a similar policy for women workers.

Companies are also allowing new mothers to bring their babies to office on some days of the week and providing support services so that they do not have to be worried about their little ones. Even during long maternity leaves, they are counted as present, making them eligible for promotions at the performance appraisals.

“Female employees on maternity leave are considered at par with other employees for promotion, training and developmental opportunities in the company," said Coca-Cola India in an email, adding that other than leaves, it is reimbursing crèche charges of women employees and allowing them to bring their kids to office for special recreational treatments twice a week.

The move comes as the government readies to change the maternity law allowing 26 weeks of leave for women employees across India.

The Union labour ministry has already moved a cabinet note for approval. The ministry is exploring if it can effect the implementation through an executive order to avoid parliamentary delays.

“Most of us in the government believe three months of maternity leave is less and it needs to be increased to 26 weeks," Union labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya said.

He said a group of ministers to vet the labour reforms, led by finance minister Arun Jaitley, has supported the extended maternity leave proposal.

“We are now exploring if we can implement it through an executive route," the minister said, without giving details.

Since maternity leave is governed by an Act, any amendment to the law needs approval of Parliament. The other way is to issue an ordinance, which comes with political risks.

But the Union labour ministry believes the change in policy will be done sooner than later and that in a couple of weeks, the cabinet is likely to approve it.

“The women labour force participation rate is very low and we must strive to bring more women to work while incentivising those already working," said labour secretary Shankar Aggarwal.

The labour force participation rate (LFPR) in India is around 40%, but for females, it is only 22.5%. The gap in male-female labour force participation is such that the LFPR for rural females of the age group over 15 years is only 35.8%, while for rural males it is more than double at 81.3%, according to a 2015 research paper by the government policy think tank NITI Aayog.

Aggarwal said that the Union government is making efforts to bridge this gap. The Model Shops and Establishments (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Bill, 2016, that the Union cabinet approved last month allows women to work night shifts, albeit with proper safety arrangements. The labour ministry has proposed a similar provision in Factories (Amendment) Bill, 2014, which is pending in Parliament.

Even the International Labour Organisation (ILO) director general Guy Ryder last week urged the government to increase participation of women in the workforce and reduce the gender pay disparity during his meeting with Indian authorities including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and labour minister Dattatreya.

“This a problem in India and elsewhere in the world and needs urgent attention," Ryder had said.

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