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The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 A Big and Positive step towards improvement in securing the employment rights of women

The fundamental purpose for providing maternity benefits is to preserve the self-respect for motherliness, protect the health of women, complete safety of the child etc.

"Beginning in the 1800s with the Industrial Revolution, when women started to go into the formal workforce, leaving working at home to working in factories, countries realized they needed to do something. And they started to pass paid maternity leave."....Jody Heymann[1]

Maternity leave and parental leave is absolutely vital for strengthening families. It’s an issue for men, women and even baby in the womb and newborn baby. At present in this competitive world family may not able to survive on one person (Male) earning so, it has created an unavoidable situation to women to participate in earning and some women because of their fashion towards their aims and aspiration started to involve in earning works. At this juncture a woman has to perform multi tasks; here the most important task that has to perform and that only can be performed by women is bearing and giving birth to a child. Here it is proved fact that women involvement in work as well as to give birth both are necessary for continuation of this society. To provide health care to women and child by providing financial support to mother the concepts of maternity leave and benefits or allowances to working women came in to force. But in general people confused between parental leave, maternity leave and family leave in fact there is a lot of difference among them.

Parental leave or family leave is an employee benefit available in almost all countries. The term "parental leave" generally includes maternity, paternity, and adoption leave. A distinction between "maternity leave" and "parental leave" is sometimes made- maternity leave as the mother's leave time directly before and after childbirth and parental leave being the time given to care for newborns.In some countries and jurisdictions, "family leave" also includes leave provided to care for ill family members. Often, the minimum benefits and eligibility requirements are stipulated by law.

Unpaid parental or family leave is provided when an employer is required to hold an employee's job while that employee is taking leave. Paid parental or family leave providespaid time offwork to care for or make arrangements for the welfare of a child or dependent family member. The three most common models of funding are social insurance/social security (where employees, employers, or taxpayers in general contribute to a specific public fund), employer liability (where the employer must pay the employee for the length of leave), and mixed policies that combine both social security and employer liability.

Parental leave has been available as a legal right and/or governmental program for many years, in one form or another. In 2014, the International Labour Organization reviewed parental leave policies in 185 countries and territories, and found that all countries except Papua New Guineahave laws mandating some form of parental leave.A different study showed that of 186 countries examined, 96% offered some pay to mothers during leave, but only 81 of those countries offered the same for fathers. The United States, Suriname, Papua New Guinea, and several island countries in the Pacific Ocean are the only countries that do not require employers to provide paid time off for new parents.[2]

Main object behind providing maternity benefits
The fundamental purpose for providing maternity benefits is to preserve the self-respect for motherliness, protect the health of women, complete safety of the child etc. The objective of maternity benefits is to protect the dignity of “Motherhood” by providing the complete & health care to the women & her child when she is not able to perform her duty due to her health condition. There is need for maternity benefits so that a woman is to be able to give quality time to her child without having to worry about whether she will lose her job and her source of income.

A separate law in India to provide maternity benefits
The maternity leave and benefits are provided to protect the dignity of motherhood by providing for the full and healthy maintenance of woman and her child when she is not working. As the number of women employees is growing in India, maternity leave and other maternity benefits are becoming increasingly common. In 1961, the Maternity Benefit Act was passed by Indian government aiming at a uniform maternity benefit all over the country with an aims to regulate the women employed in factories, shops or commercial establishments where 10 or more employees engaged.

Because of so many international conventions like the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) etc. International labour organization (ILO) contribution andseveral expert bodies like the WHO have recommended that 24 weeks of maternity leave is required to protect maternal and child health.[3]At the same time national judicial pronouncements time to time Indian government amending the maternity benefit Act to reform maternity benefit Act 1961, in that way recently the Maternity (Amendment) Bill 2017,an amendment to theMaternity Benefit Act, 1961, was passed in Rajya Sabha on August 11, 2016; in Lok Sabha on March 09, 2017, and received an assent from President of India on March 27, 2017.

The provisions of The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 are effective from April 1, 2017. However, provision on crèche facility (Section 111 A) shall be effective from July 1, 2017.

The main aim of the Act is to regulate the employment of women during the period of child birth. It has amended the provisions related to the duration and applicability of maternity leave, and other facilities.

The key features and implications of the Maternity Benefits Act, 2017 are:

Applicability of the Act:As per Section 2 of the Act, The Act is applicable to all those women employed in factories, mines and including every shops or commercial establishments employing 10 or more employees. As per this section the original provision will prevail i.e. the Act is applicable to all women who are employed in any capacity directly or through any agency i.e. either on contractual or a consultant.

Protection from termination or dismissal during the pregnancy
Section 12 of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 emphasizes that any dismissal or discharge of a women during the pregnancy is unlawful and such employer can be punished under section 12 of the Act. However, in cases of gross misconduct, the employer can take necessary actions as per the defined disciplinary policy of the Company.

Duration of Maternity Leave in India: The Act has increased the duration of paid maternity leaves to 26 weeks from the present 12 weeks. The extended period is applicable to women in case of the first and second child. Women who are expecting after having 2 children, the duration of paid maternity leave shall be 12 weeks i.e. 6 weeks pre-delivery and 6 weeks post-delivery.

For adoptive and commissioning mothers: The Act now extends to adoptive mothers as well. Every woman who has adopted a child will get 12 weeks of maternity leave from the date of adoption.[4]

Work from Home: It also introduces the option of ‘work from home’ for mothers. After the expiry of the 26 weeks’ leave period, the woman can use this option to do her work from home. This option can be modified according to the nature of the work and terms and conditions levied by the employer.[5]

Crèches: The Act makes it compulsory for every establishment employing 50 or more women to have in-house creche facilities and allows women to visit the facility 4 times during the day.[6]but the age of the children up to which age are entitled to the facility of crèche is not mentioned in the Act.

Awareness:
The Act makes it compulsory for employers to aware women about the maternity benefits at the time of their appointment.Such information must be given in writing and electronically.[7]

Major changes
·The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017 has increased the duration of paid maternity leave available for women employees to 26 weeks from 12 weeks. However for those women who are expecting after having 2 children, the duration of the leave remains unaltered at 12 weeks.
·The paid maternity leave can be availed 8 weeks before the expected date of delivery. Before the amendment, it was 6 weeks.
·The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017 has extended the benefits applicable to the adoptive and commissioning mothers and provides that woman who adopts a child will be given 12 weeks of maternity leave from the date of adoption.
·The Act has introduced an enabling provision relating to “work from home” that can be exercised after the expiry of 26 weeks’ leave period. Depending upon the nature of work, a woman can avail of this provision on such terms that are mutually agreed with the employer.
·The amended Act has mandated crèche facility for every establishment employing 50 or more employees. The women employees should be permitted to visit the facility 4 times during the day.
·The amended Act makes it compulsory for the employers to educate women about the maternity benefits available to them at the time of their appointment.

Significance of the Amendment Act, 2017
The amended act has raised the maternity benefits from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. This is significant and is in line with the recommendation of the World Health Organisation which says that children must be exclusively breastfed by the mother for the first 24 weeks. The extension in the maternity leave will help in improving survival rates of children and healthy development of both mother and child.

This will also reduce the instances of women dropping out of the labour force due to absence of adequate maternity leave.

The amended act also falls in line with international best practices such as the Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No183) which calls for at least 14 weeks of mandatory maternity benefit.

Another significant feature is the introduction of 12 weeks of maternity benefits to the adopting and commissioned mothers.

The amended provisions have placed India third worldwide only behind Canada and Norway globally in the amount of maternity benefits being made available to the women workers.

Some low lights in the Amendment Act, 2017
·This Amendment promoting Patriarchy: Many social scientists are of opinion that it will promotepatriarchyas almost whole responsibility of child caring are on the mother's as per this amendment. Government has not announced any leave for fathers.

·Adverse impact on the job opportunities for women: Many private firms may avoid giving jobs to such women who may enter intopregnancyperiod as then they have to give them maternity leave up to 26 weeks.The increase in the maternity leave could also have adverse impact on the job opportunities for women. The requirement of full payment of wages during maternity leave could increase costs for employers. It could result in increased preference for hiring male workers. The provision could also impact the competitiveness of industries that predominantly employs women workers.

·Lack of clarity :Various provisions of the amended act lack clarity. For instance, there is no clarity in the act regarding the time period up to which the crèche facility could be extended to the employee and also regarding the aspect of availability, frequency and extent of nursing breaks. The provisions regarding the applicability of the Act to the unorganised sector also remain unclear. Though, on one hand, the act states that it covers all women working in mines, plantations, shops, and establishments as well as factories in both organised and unorganised sectors. But on the other hand, the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 defines unorganised sector workers as those who are home based, self-employed, or wage workers working in an entity having less than 10 employees. So the provisions did not clarify whether the act is applicable to the women employees in those enterprises having less than 10 employees. This is disturbing as over 90% of the working women are employed in unorganised sector in India.

·Lack of Institutional support :Though the women working in unorganised sector can avail benefits from the schemes such as the Janani Suraksha Yojanaand the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana, they get their benefit only in terms of cash assistance and lack other institutional support provided in the maternity benefit Act.

Recommendations
Increasing maternity benefit is a welcome step but the government should devise some mechanism to ensure that competitiveness of the private sector is not affected.

-Need to bring uniformity in labour law about maternity benefits: The government should try to bring about uniformity in labour laws about maternity benefits. The acts like Employees State Insurance Act, 1948, All India Services (Leave) Rules, 1955, Central Civil Services (Leave) Rules, 1972, Factories Act, 1948, and the Unorganized Workers Social Security Act, 2008 have differences in coverage, benefits and financing. All these laws must be amalgamated to uniformly disseminate the benefits across various sectors in India.

-Better to rethink on financial burden of the employer: The present amendment has the potential to dissuade employers from employing women as they have to bear the financial burden of maternity benefits. So to stop this, the government should follow the advice of ILO. ILO has stated that the cost of providing maternity benefits must not be exclusively borne by the employer. In this regard, the government should come forward in addressing the maternity benefit financing issues. The government should opt for paying benefits through compulsory social insurance or public funds as recommended by the ILO. In this regard, thePan-India expansion of Maternity Benefit Programme (MBP)of the Ministry of Women & Child Development is a welcome step. The scheme is applicable to all pregnant women and lactating mothers and excludes the pregnant women and lactating mothers in regular employment with the Central Government or State Governments and in Public Sector Undertakings.

-It should provide scope for Paternity benefit: Another issue is that the amendments are silent on provisions regarding paternity benefits. At present, paternity benefits are permitted in government jobs as a part of leave rules and in private organizations as a matter of internal policy. In this regard, ILO has recognised men’s right to parenthood. It wants to see men as active co-parent. In a country where gender stereotypes are predominant, a gender-balanced approach to parenthood is needed. The government should come up with a incentivised schemes regarding paternity benefits to achieve this objective.

Conclusion
Motherhood was one of the most important and challenging jobs in the world and that, in India, all religions have held the role of a mother as an esteemed position. The court concluded that motherhood was an inherent and integral part of a woman’s dignity, which is protected by Article 21 of the Constitution as per judicial pronouncements in India. So, finally one can say that the amendments are a welcome and positive move by the government. At the same time, the government should address the above shortcomings and should work towards ensuring that the law provides equal opportunities to women at the workplace.
“Any society that fails to harness the energy and creativity of its women is at a huge disadvantage in the modern world” ……. Tian Wei(CCTV News)[8]
“So today, we call upon the world leaders to change their strategic policies in favor of peace and prosperity. We call upon the world leaders that all of these deals must protect women and children’s rights. A deal that goes against the rights of women is unacceptable” ………… Malala Yousafzai[9]

*Assistant Professor, Smt. V.D. Siddartha Law College, Kanuru, Vijayawada, Krishna District, Andhra Pradesh, India. E-mail: anuradhakoneru988@gmail.com
End-Notes
[1]Available at: http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1531372
[2]Available at : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parental_leave
[3]Available at : http://www.prsindia.org/billtrack/the-maternity-benefit-amendment-bill-2016-4370/
[4]Section 5(4)
[5]Section 5(5)
[6]Section 11A(1)
[7]Section 11A(2)
[8]Available at : https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/03/quotes-on-women-at-work/
[9]Available at : http://www.azquotes.com/quotes/topics/protect-women.html

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