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Rashmi Vasudeva, Apr 29 2017, 0:07 IST

MATERNITY LEAVE

The government of India termed it as a ‘humble gift’ to women. But this particular gift (horse) needs to be looked in the mouth. And thoroughly.

The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2016 came into force from April 2017. The Act mandates maternity leave of 26 weeks (an extension from the previous 12 weeks), provision of crche by companies with more than 50 employees, and leave up to 12 weeks for women adopting children below three months. At first glance, this appears to be a great leap forward for working women in India.

Who will it benefit?

The policy has been ostensibly introduced to make employment more attractive for women in a country where only 27% women work according to latest data from the International Labor Organization. Supporters of the Act argue that this would help more women enter the workforce and provide her support at a time when she is most likely to quit. Indeed, it might, and it is too early to predict otherwise. But it is crucial to note that workforce here refers to the mere 10-odd per cent of women who work in the organised sector, a significant percentage of whom are already eligible for many maternity-related benefits including extended leave, flexible timings, office crches etc due to already existing policies. The other 90% in the unorganised sector continue to get up at unearthly hours, strap their offspring to their backs (metaphorically and often literally) and get to work.

Ananda Krishnan, senior vice-president, Human Resources and Information Technology at TVS Motor Company, believes one should not look at the new provisions myopically. “Companies that adopt diversity in their workforce will eventually obtain better value and nurture quality thinkers. This ought to be seen as an opportunity for companies to enrich their workforce," he says. He asserts six months is a healthy time period and the onus is on the companies to ensure a smooth transition back to work,” as he puts it. He suggests more direction and hand-holding from the government in the form of workshops and training programmes, especially for smaller companies, to dispel misconceptions and better implement the Act.

Indeed, it is not prudent to make any sweeping arguments against the Act. More so because a good portion of women in the organised sector are high up in the hierarchy or are in high-skilled jobs and big companies can ill-afford to reject them. Also, companies are always under pressure to have a diverse workforce and retain employees as long as they can.

A question of money

That may well be so, but this does not absolve the Act of its weaknesses. Critics have raised vital questions about its ‘unreal’ demands and its economic viability for medium and small companies. The big fear is about it having the opposite of the desired effect – forcing companies to hire women less rather than more. While the Act is undoubtedly well-intentioned, many argue that there are practical issues with its implementation that the makers of the law have not paid any attention to.

Gokul Visweswaran, co-founder, NFN Labs, says though it is good that the government is prescribing such generous maternity benefits, it is putting undue pressure on SMEs and start-ups that are already under financial duress. He believes this will force them to rethink hiring of women in the workplace.

“It is a joke to expect small companies to ‘set up crches’ or ‘subscribe to shared-services crches in the locality’. What about the cost-to-company? Will the government foot the bill? Companies exist to make profit and instead of helping women, this will deter companies from hiring them,” he says matter-of-factly. He believes the Bill (Act now) was “doomed” from the day it was passed.

More harm than good?

The Act has indeed put many start-ups in a quandary. According to a survey by Local Circles, a citizen-based social network, 26% of the 4,300 entrepreneurs they spoke to said they would now prefer to hire male employees. Around 35% of those surveyed readily agreed that the Act will have a negative impact on business and will affect costs and profits. Nearly 40% of them said they will hire women but they will “consider if the cost is worth the candidate”. This is a mild way of admitting that they will either openly avoid hiring women of a certain age, or worse, will ask personal and intrusive questions about plans for pregnancy at interviews.

New mothers already have it tough at the workplace with companies overlooking them for promotions; they also often face hostility at the workplace. “Some of my colleagues are ‘jealous’ of me — they think me working from home is me putting up my feet on the couch while my baby sleeps peacefully,” says Jahnavi Prasad sarcastically. Mother of a two-year-old and an IT professional whose company allows her to work from home on four days and attend office only one day a week, Jahnavi says everybody thinks they are doing her a favour by granting her maternity benefits. Companies are also known to make new mothers sign contracts that will force them to work for a stipulated period (often more than a year) as an “exchange” for maternity benefits.

So what is the solution?

“This is my greatest fear – that it will do women more harm than good,” says Neha Bagaria, founder of jobsforher.com, an online employment portal for women looking to get back to work after a career break. She believes companies and governments should consider a ‘parental leave policy’ like the one followed by Sweden that enables both parents to care for their children. “This way, the burden on companies can be reduced as well; for instance, the 26 weeks of leave could be split between mothers and fathers so that the time off (and the enormous job of bringing up the baby) is shared by both the parents,” she says.

Instead of groaning about an Act which is already in place, companies ought to begin creating and fostering “open communication” with their women employees so that they can plan ahead with the teams in which pregnant women and new mothers work, she says. “Companies should also be more open to take qualified and experienced women returning from a career break…it is a matter of reimagining the future.”

Priya Singh, director (HR), Lowe’s India, a Fortune 50 home improvement company, seconds Neha’s view. “Nuclear families are the norm now and managing a newborn is a big challenge. Paternity leave will ensure there is a reduced impact on companies and lesser burden on women,” she says.

Ultimately, it is hard to deny that smaller companies will find it tough to implement the provisions and manage their finances, but it might well be so that bigger companies find it easier to retain women employees with the new policy. A certain amount of flux and unpredictability is common with policy changes and it will be quite a while till its complete impact can be assessed.

The Act might be lacking in several ways but it rings true socially and morally. Despite its flaws, it is a step in the right direction — it sends strong signals about the need for gender equality at the workplace and may eventually lead to better systems to deal with maternity and child rearing.

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