Maternity Leave,Wishful Thinking?

Many women in the unorganised sectors or in contract work are still dependant on their immediate employer for social security benefits like the ESI.Though firms are duty-bound to offer maternity benefits, smaller agencies are difficult to monitor, and have staff who are unaware of their rights

Published: 21st March 2016 05:24 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st March 2016 05:24 AM   |  A+A-


CHENNAI: Of all the Women’s Day offers that were doing the rounds last week, one managed to grab the attention — Airtel’s extension of maternity leave to 22 weeks. With nuclear families and long work hours preventing women from working after pregnancy, new gender-inclusive laws are much in demand. One of the reasons why by 2015-end, the Central government agreed to increase maternity leave from a mere 12 weeks to 26 weeks.

Though this amendment has not been passed yet, some private companies like Flipkart and Microsoft have voluntarily increased the leave period for pregnant women. Airtel promised other benefits and flexible work options to ensure a smooth transition to full-time work and day care facilities. But paternity leave will be for one week.

The increased maternity leave is a welcome move for all women and the proposed amendment to increase leave makes India rank high on maternity benefits. But the large number of women in the unorganised sectors or in contract work that lie outside the domain of corporate policy are still dependant on their immediate employer and on social security benefits like Maternity Benefit Act or the Employee’s State Insurance (ESI).

“For a large company, it makes business sense to hire people on contract, especially for jobs that do not require many skills such as making calls to customers or cleaning the office, etc. So the responsibility for taking care of this workforce lies with other agencies,” said a source from Airtel India.

People below a certain pay-scale and also contract workers do not come under corporate policies, and instead get their benefits through ESI.

“This is a trend we see everywhere today. Contracting out most of the work to cut costs and simplifying the processes is the direction most companies take,” says Nitya R, an advocate practicing corporate law. “Your contract with your employer becomes the main document that protects your rights. When we do diligence reports, we find many companies defaulting on labour laws.” Although companies are duty-bound to offer benefits like ESI, smaller agencies are difficult to monitor. They also have staff who may not be aware of their rights and stand at risk of being misused. “I am covered under ESI, and during my pregnancy, I got half the wages for the three months I took leave,” says Jayashree, who works through a contract agency as a housekeeping staff in a company

While the ESI rules specify she needs to get paid in accordance with the daily rate, Jayashree was not aware of it and was happy to get half the wages which many of her acquaintances did not get. “A number of independent professionals like lawyers or doctors are also not bound by most company laws as they work as consultants,” explains Nitya. “If you’re earning well, this may not be a problem. But for the rest, it’s difficult. Even those who are professionally qualified don’t earn well early in their career.”

The nature of benefits has become very industry-specific. That’s why you don’t find many women with jobs that involve a lot of travel, as they find maternity leave a challenge. Jobs in IT and banking sectors tend to have a better gender ratio, and companies that have many workers ‘on bench’ can substitute women who go on leave. In a telecom company like Airtel, for instance, the source said, the gender ratio is around 10% women, as frequent travel and postings in semi-urban areas does not have many women takers.

“When I worked in an e-learning company, the gender ratio was good; we had a good maternity policy and work-from-home options too. So we had very low attrition, unlike many companies where it is common to quit after pregnancy,” says Anuradha Balasubramanian, co-founder, Syona Cosmetics.

Today, her company, a woman-centric firm, has around 50% women staff. “But there’s a lot of fieldwork; so we do face the challenge of how to deal with maternity leave. For non desk-jobs, work-from-home is not feasible, though we try and reduce travel after delivery. But for those industries where it’s possible, it should be done,” she says, adding that other incentives like office day-care will go a long way in reducing attrition.

Ashwini Asokan, co-founder of the start-up Mad Street Den, concurs, “It’s not a one-stop solution, the transition into the phase and outside is equally important.

In our office, we are setting up a day-care, we have a nursing room and a nanny. We work on a case-by-case basis where part-time is offered wherever possible. If you are pregnant, you are usually weeded off from promotions because of the assumption that you cannot handle the responsibility. This may be true for some women but shouldn’t they be able to make this decision rather than having it done for them?” asks Ashwini.


With sharing of responsibilities at work and home, more paternity leave is also demanded by working couples who look forward to a shift from the cultural milieu of the woman as the main caregiver. “In the traditional set-up, the woman goes to her mother’s house, so the father had no need to take leave and didn’t have to be hands-on. But today, things are changing and they should have a choice,” says Anuradha. “With one week of paternity leave, the mother and child would have barely settled in their home.” Some offices are exploring higher period of paternity leave, and Ashwini says her start-up offers a month as paternity leave. “When I had a baby, my husband and I were both equally active in raising the baby, and this is the way it should be,” she says. “In some ways, this is even more important than maternity leave as shared responsibilities with the husband help the woman’s career in the long term.”


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