The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act passed by the parliament in the year 2017 has made it mandatory for private companies with more than 10 employees to provide women with 26 weeks of paid maternity leave. The act also mandates that establishments that have more than 50 employees will need to provide their employees with crèche facilities and ‘work from home’ options.
The landmark bill was passed keeping in mind the challenges that women face when getting back to work after their maternity break. It aims at empowering women and providing them with options that help them reach their ideal work-life balance. The passing of the bill places India in the number three position after Canada and Norway that grant their employees with 50 and 44 weeks of paid leave respectively.
While the bill has been welcomed by all women employees and women’s rights groups, it raises many questions with respect to its cost implications and feasibility in a patriarchal country like India. With women being perceived as the primary caregiver, returning back to work after a break is no easy task. More often than not, childbearing tasks and other related chores at home rest solely on the shoulders of the women. Also, while large establishments are welcoming this bill, their smaller counterparts argue that this mandate would go beyond their financial budgets. How can then an empowering bill like this truly benefit the women workforce of India?
There are a lot of unanswered questions that the Maternity Bill brings to the fore. For one, the Bill is targeted at only women and does not keep in mind the growing population of fathers who in today’s times also chip in when it comes to looking after their children. Indian Labor Organization's ‘Maternity and Paternity at Work’ report 2014 quotes researcher Erin Rehel on the role of the father at home. “By drawing fathers into the daily realities of childcare, free of workplace constraints, extended time-off (immediately after the birth) provides the space necessary for fathers to develop the parenting skills and sense of responsibility that then allows them to be active co-parents rather than helpers to their female partners.”
If one were to look at the Nordic countries, we can see that they have closed over 80 per cent gender gaps. The one thing that stands out in achieving this is the introduction of family or paternity leave policies that allow both men and women to take time off from their careers for childcare and let them return to the workforce at the same level.
When we compare the maternal and paternal leave policies in other countries, India has a long way to go. The Canadian Parental Leave Policy, for example, allows parents to stretch out their leave for a year and a half and ensures that employers accept the employees back into their jobs at the same rate of pay and with the same employment benefits.
The inclusion of combined family leave provisions in the bill would go a long way in not only strengthening the bill but also in ensuring that companies do not discriminate against women when it comes to rehiring them in the workforce. This would also help close the gender diversity gap by encouraging women to pursue their careers even after taking a break.
ShachiIrde, Vice-President and Executive Director, Catalyst India WRC, quotes, “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.”
What is also equally important for organizations besides adopting the Maternity Bill as their internal policy is to ensure that the reintegration and transition of women back into work is smooth and stress-free. This could be aided by introducing and implementing returnship programmes that encourage women to balance their responsibilities at home and work.
There are a lot of companies that have introduced return to work programmes that are aimed at encouraging women back to work. Besides providing their female workforce with onsite or near site daycare facilities, companies like IBM, Godrej, and Amazon to name a few, have also launched initiatives that provide a launch pad for women coming back to work after a break. These initiatives are aimed not only at providing a conducive work environment for women but also at providing them with professional development and training courses that could sharpen and strengthen their skills.
While all this holds true for larger and medium-sized organizations, it is the smaller ones that struggle when it comes to balancing the cost implications the Bill comes with. An option that could be worth looking into, however, is for the government to bear or share the cost of paid maternity leave for such organizations so as to ease the burden on them.
With the Maternity Bill passage just a year ago, there are a lot of gaps that still need to be filled in and it is only with time that establishments will completely and positively accept this bill. Taking a long-term view of this mandate that will slowly yet steadily improve the gender balance in the workforce is the key to its inclusion as an internal policy in any company or establishment.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of People Matters.