Will longer maternity leave increase the already skewed gender gap in workforce?

The Maternity Benefit Amendment Bill (2016) is a mixed bag says Anubha Yadav. On one hand it brings much needed change for adoptive and commissioning mothers, while on the other it pushes women into a traditional role by viewing labor reforms for women in the limited paradigm of welfare politics.

 

A few years back I interviewed a small group of women for a media job. I recommended one woman from the small group for the job. She met the desired qualifications and had the required experience. Later I realized my boss had hired someone else. When I asked her the reason, she said, ‘Didn’t you notice? She was at least three months pregnant. Our show will launch exactly when she will have to go on maternity leave. We are already pressed for time.’ She was not hired because in six months she would have gone for three months’ maternity leave. Imagine what will happen now when it will be six months. The globalised corporate environment works with small teams and stiff targets and deadlines. With increasingly tough and demanding corporate deadlines, with hyper-capitalism laying its roots deeper, with corporates taking over family life and the boundaries between work and home merging more everyday, a law that extends maternity leave makes it more difficult for women to get hired and stay in the work force. The proverbial glass ceiling just got an iron coat.

 

The Maternity Benefit Amendment Bill (2016) is a mixed bag. On one hand it brings much needed change for adoptive and commissioning mothers, while on the other it pushes women into a traditional role by viewing labor reforms for women in the limited paradigm of welfare politics. Being a mother is haloed in most cultures, including India. This sacred social construct makes parenting synonymous with mothering and thus the father, the extended family and the state become surrogate (read secondary) and not primary holders of this responsibility. Actually, working mother is a misnomer. All mothers work. Mothering is work. Women at home, who manage a household work albeit it isn’t recognized as “productive” work and thus remains unpaid and invisible. This unpaid family work vs productive work (outside the family) distinction is the problem that plagues policy makers when they draft laws for women.

 

A majority of women in India work in the unorganized sector, be it as domestic workers, in agriculture, construction centers, small shops and businesses, tanneries (setting, parting and beedi industries) etc. Most of these women do not get the benefits of the maternity act (old or amended) owing to the nature of their employment. Most of these women in the unorganized sector are underpaid, overworked with limited job security or health benefits.

 

The Union cabinet on Wednesday gave ex-post facto approval to increase the maternity leave benefit from twelve weeks (three months) to twenty-six weeks (six months) for two surviving children. Maternity leave is already six months in the government sector and with this amendment its scope would expand to the organized private sector with more than ten employees. Thus, now, if a family has two children at a gap of three years, the woman would effectively be on leave for a year in about four years. On the other hand for the same two children the father would avail a month’s paternity leave (fifteen days for each child- not mandatory), if he is a central government employee.

India has no paternity leave laws for the private sector.

A father is not expected to be taking/needing leave from work when bringing two children into this world. Our labor minister in his key argument in support of passing this bill said- “The very purpose of this Bill is to increase the working women force because in the work force, participation of women is decreasing day by day.” Indeed this can mean only one thing. The Government of India does not know the challenges women face at their work places. Let’s be clear, extension of maternity leave to six months is not a pro- women, pro- working-women, pro-mothers or pro-future mothers move. And in case the Government of India actually wanted to do that they could have done the following-

 

  1. a) Ensure all organizations comply with the already existing Maternity Leave Act (1961)-

Go to your near by beauty parlor and ask the women employees if they get maternity leave. Even the urban corporates (malls, schools and hospitals) do not give maternity benefits to their women employees. Instead a lot of them ask the women employees to quit and rejoin.

  1. b) Paternity Leave –

Paternity leave holds potent symbolic power. Make paternity leave of twelve weeks mandatory in all organizations of more than ten employees; giving the father the freedom of availing it at any time for the first six months after the child is born. Parenting is work; it involves investment of time, labor, targets, safety standards, ethics and emotional and psychological fitness. By adding the provision of paternity leave the Government of India would make mothers and fathers equal partners in raising children. The mother would no more be the primary caregiver. Needless to add that paternity leave also gives the freedom and legitimacy to the mother to return early to the workforce, with less guilt and resistance from the family.

There is already a law that stipulates that maternity leave can’t be a cause for denial of seniority to women, but most organizations change too fast today to accommodate employees on long leave. A friend’s delivery date clashed with her long awaited promotion. When she returned after twelve weeks her junior had been given the promotion. The reason stated was her inability to attend a training program vital for the promotion owing to her maternity leave. Finally, left with no choice she quit. It does not help that the gender ratio is skewed in favor of men in almost all organizations and thus women sensitive work environments and norms do not evolve naturally. If men also go on paternity leave in due course of time it would not only enable a better balance in the family but will also create a more equal work environment.

 

  1. c) Don’t give longer leave; give safe and affordable child care facility-

 

Maternity Bill (2016) makes crèches mandatory in organizations with more than fifty employees.

This was long overdue and is a welcome move. The seriousness of the government’s intention

would be reflected in the implementation. How do they plan to ensure organisations comply within a stipulated time frame? And what will happen if they don’t?

 

According to World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report (2015) India ranks at 136th position out of a total of 145 countries of the world in terms of labor force participation of men and women in the economy. The Global Gender Gap Index ranks 145 economies according to how well they are leveraging their female talent pool, based on economic, educational, health-based and political indicators. Overall India ranks at 108. We are in the last fifty.

 

Globalization has seen a dramatic growth in production chains. And there is a need for a large number of semi skilled and skilled workers in the expanding economies of today. The way women experience work differs markedly from that of their male counterparts, because women also have domestic responsibilities and occupy socially determined “traditional” positions which complicate their working lives. It is equally true that the lack of gender sensitivity on the part of policy-makers, administrators, employers and even trade unions, means that the special situation of women zone workers is not taken into account. Thus, they are adversely affected by gender-neutral policies or welfare schemes which, in practice, discriminate against women. The Indian state has to realize that egalitarian is not synonymous with welfare. Instead of extending the maternity leave lets start with compliance of laws made for women in the workforce (organized and unorganized), compulsory childcare centers and paternity leave.

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