The union labour ministry brought much cheer to working women in the private sector on December 28, when it agreed to a proposal to increase maternity leave from the current 12 weeks to 26 weeks. The proposal was pushed by Maneka Gandhi’s women and child development ministry, with the intention of giving women a healthy six months to breastfeed their babies after childbirth.
If an amendment to the effect is eventually made to the Maternity Benefits Act of 1961, it would put India in a league of just 16 countries across the globe that give women the highest duration of paid maternity leave.
For several large and progressive private sector companies, this is likely to be a positive step towards more family-friendly human resource policies that make their organisations more attractive to employees. Companies such as Flipkart, Godrej, ICICI and Accenture already offer between five and six months of maternity leave.
But even amidst the preliminary celebrations, some industry professionals are raising voices of concern. Would 26 weeks – six-and-a-half months – of staying away from work place too much pressure on smaller enterprises? Would it make returning to the workforce more difficult for mothers? And what about the rights of millions of women working in the unorganised sector, who get almost no legal maternity benefits to speak of?
“Giving women 26 weeks of paid maternity leave is a great, bold move that sends the right message, but six months is a long time in anyone’s career today,” said Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes.in, a forum that helps working women access opportunities to work with more women-friendly companies. “Right now, even going on three months of leave places several challenges on women when they want to get back to work. It can affect their career map.”
In India, 48% of women drop out of the workforce mid-career because of family responsibilities. Those who do return to work after maternity leave often end up taking more childcare leaves to cope with the responsibilities of motherhood, and find that it affects promotion and appraisal prospects at work.
With an extended 14 weeks of maternity leave, some fear women who work in more person-dependent roles – ones that require building relationships with clients, for instance – could face trouble getting re-absorbed by companies that are not progressive enough.
“For six months, if other staff members learn to manage without the employee on leave, companies might wonder if that person is dispensable,” said a senior HR professional from Delhi who did not wish to be named. “Smaller companies with smaller teams are more likely to feel that way.”
Needed: paternity leave
Some professionals, however, believe that companies need not take such a negative view of a proposed policy that should ideally be welcomed across the board. Instead of focusing on the added pressures of having an employee on paid leave for six months, companies – and the government – could move towards a larger attitudinal shift about managing work and family.
“The big change we need in this country is the official introduction of shared parental leave, so that the responsibility of men in child-care is also brought into the picture,” said Chahal, who believes a legal policy for paternity leave along with maternity benefits is overdue in India.
According to a 2014 International Labour Organisation report, at least 78 countries around the world already provide paternity leave to encourage the involvement of fathers in child-rearing. Of these, 70 countries provide paid paternity leave. While almost all of these nations offer less than two weeks of leave for fathers, a report from Sweden – which offers at least two months of paternity leave and 16 months of shared parental leave – reveals that for every month that fathers took paternity leave, the mother’s income increased by 6.7% as measured four years later.
Introducing paternity leave, says Chahal, would help create at least a part of the ecosystems that make the implementation of six-month maternity leaves successful elsewhere in the world. “These ecosystems include access to good crèches, care-giving certification and other social security measures to help support working parents,” she said.
The millions left out
So far, Maneka Gandhi’s proposal to extend maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks is intended for the private sector alone. In public sector establishments, the Maternity Benefits Act provides for 12 weeks of maternity leave, six each before and after delivery of the child.
“But even in the public sector, central government employees get six months of maternity leave,” said Dipa Sinha, an activist from the Right to Food Campaign in Delhi.
The women that are truly left out of the ambit of benefits, says Sinha, are those working in the unorganised sector, as domestic help, farm labour, construction workers and other informal professions. In 2010, the central government had introduced the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana specially to serve this population.
The scheme, which is now a part of the National Food Security Act, allows for six weeks of maternity leave for women in the unorganised sector, along with a conditional cash transfer of Rs 6,000 for pregnant and lactating mothers for their first two live births. Some of the conditions that mothers must meet to be eligible for the cash compensation include registering the pregnancy and birth at the local anganwadi centre, attending certain counselling sessions on child-care and exclusively breast-feeding the child for the first six months.
The scheme was to be implemented on a pilot basis in 53 districts across India last year, but has been delayed several times. In April 2015, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Central government for non-implementation of various provisions of the NFSA, including the cash transfers for working mothers.
“There are several problems with the provisions,” said Sinha. “The amount of Rs 6,000 as wage compensation for mothers on leave is too arbitrary and too little compared to what the woman would have earned had she not been resting.”
Besides, if women employed in the public and private sectors can get between three and six months of leave, why should those in the informal sector get only six weeks? “In fact, women working as agricultural or construction labour need far more rest before and after delivery of a child,” Sinha said.