The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, a long overdue proposal, was finally tabled in the Rajya Sabha on August 11 and we couldn’t be happier. The proposal updated the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, and if the bill is passed, mothers of newborns will be entitled to maternity leave of 26 weeks, increased from 12 weeks.
Shachi Irde, executive director, Catalyst India WRC, a leading nonprofit organisation looking at the inclusion of women in the workplace, is delighted by the bill, but is still concerned about working mothers. “The percentage of women in India’s workplaces decreased from 37% in 2004-05 to 29% in 2009-10,” she says. “It is commendable that the government has passed the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, but to prevent the law from being counter-productive to women, organisations must also further their reintegration-from-leave programmes to support the successful return of talented working mothers.”
Much as mothers of newborns may celebrate, the fact remains that organisations may not be open to the idea of losing a resource for so long, even if it’s temporary. “With the government not compensating organisations for extending maternity leaves, small and medium companies might become wary of recruiting women, as it would be considered an added cost to the company,” explains Irde. “Additionally, the longer women stay away from work, the more challenging it could get for them to re-join the workforce if adequate engagement and return programmes aren’t guaranteed along with the extended leave.”
One major fallout of this amendment bill, Irde points out, is that it reinforces the stereotype of women being the primary caregivers in their families. “We believe businesses and governments should look at revising parental laws that would help eliminate such socio-cultural biases and barriers,” she says. “Equality in the workplace is predicated on equality in parenting and workplace policies to support both men and women as caregivers.”
Aparna Athreya who runs the Kid and Parent Foundation in Bangalore is happy with the bill. “It is certainly a step forward for women in the workplace. However, I would like to wait and see the interpretation and implementation before I rejoice. As it stands, the guidelines are broad-based and subject to interpretation.”
Irde prefers to look on the positive side of the bill, which also mandates the provision of crèches in establishments with 50 or more employees. “This amendment will not only help women, but all working parents who are seeking to better manage their work-life priorities. Ultimately, this will result in more engaged and productive employees,” she says.
But she remains concerned about the return of women to the workplace after maternity leave. “It is essential to implement returnship programmes and fair performance management systems that do not penalise women for maternity breaks as well as make flexible work arrangements a business strategy for all eligible employees,” says Irde. “Companies should also make the effort to ensure their women employees feel valued, since the sooner they reintegrate, the smoother the transition back to work and productivity will be.”
Such facilities for working mothers will ease the pressure on women after they return at workplace. It also could increase their potential and lead to higher levels of productivity and retention, helping businesses grow. Will this happen? Only time will tell.
Feature image credit: flexiboss.com
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