The enhancement of paid maternity leave for working women to 26 weeks, from the present 12 weeks, is a progressive move, signalling that India is in sync with the social changes. With the Lok Sabha passing the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, it is now mandatory for organisations to provide 26 weeks of paid leave to women employees. This is expected to benefit 1.80 million employees in organised sector and protect their jobs during the period of pregnancy. However, it should be seen as just a baby step because women workers in unorganised sector, constituting over 95 percent of the workforce, are not covered by this legislation. While the legislative intervention is laudable, its benefits reach only a minuscule percentage of women and exclude the majority who constitute contractual labourers, farmers, domestic helps and daily wage earners. Steps must be taken to expand its application so that the unorganised sector is also covered. Though limited in its application, the much-awaited measure takes India to the third position in terms of duration of the paid maternity leave, after Canada and Norway where it is 50 weeks and 44 weeks respectively. The new legislation also stipulates that all establishments employing 50 or more people should provide Creche facility for the benefit of young mothers. It is now mandatory for organisations to communicate these rights to female employees in writing.
While these measures are welcome, there is a need to expand the scope and legislate on paternity leave as well. The time is ripe for redefining the childcare activity to make it gender-neutral and view it not as a “women’s work” but as a shared responsibility. In this day and age, when nuclear families are the norm, parenting is a joint responsibility of both the partners. In order to bring in real equality and banish the stereotypes associated with parenting, it is important to frame similar policies for paternity leave. Such a shift will help make men equal partners in childcare. Providing legislative backing for paid maternity leave is a ground-breaking measure as several global studies have shown strong link between paid leave and women returning to the workforce after childbirth. This means a much better chance of women staying in the workforce. The amended legislation is in line with several expert recommendations including that of World Health Organisation which recommends exclusive breastfeeding of children for the first 24 weeks. There are apprehensions in some quarters that mandatory provisions of the new legislation could act as a deterrent for the private sector to employ women workforce. The innovative way to counter such eventualities is to make the policy gender-neutral and bring in paternity benefits that would help a couple raise their child together.