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The Smarter-nity Bill: In Defence of the New Maternity Leave Policy

Sayoni Aiyar

Updated: March 25, 2017, 4:58 PM IST
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The Smarter-nity Bill: In Defence of the New Maternity Leave Policy
Representative image (Courtesy: Getty Images)

For a piece of legislation designed to directly benefit half the country’s population, Maneka Gandhi’s new Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill has drawn more than its share of flak.

The critics may have a (limited) point. Yes, it may deter companies, especially smaller ones, from hiring women employees. Yes, companies with a higher ratio of women employees and a smaller number of staff would possibly need some restructuring.
Yes, some women may takes the 26 weeks of paid leave and then quit anyway.

But here’s the thing. Women are already paid less compared to their male counterparts - 23% is the global average. This gender pay gap is so deeply entrenched that the UN has recently launched a campaign against it.

Many companies make the choice to hire a woman simply because she is willing to work for a lower salary than her male counterpart. So they’re saving money from the get-go by hiring a woman.

Will they now be biased towards a male candidate - and pay him more every month - just because the female candidate could at some point marry, have children and stay employed through it all? She could just as easily decide not to. And at the end of the day, even if more women opt to keep their jobs when they become pregnant, it will still make better business sense to employ a woman till the gender pay gap narrows.

The larger criticism is the fact that this bill caters to only a small percentage of women in the country - a ‘relatively privileged’ fraction compared to the thousands who work in the unorganized sector, have no formal benefits, and are not covered under the new bill. This is a big miss and definitely needs the attention of our policymakers. But calling for a retraction of the bill on these grounds is an extreme reaction which will harm more than it helps.

Why grudge India's working women this very important benefit just because it would not extend to the majority at the moment? These are women who are not the ‘creamy layer’- if they were, they would not be working through their pregnancies, dependent on paid maternity leave to pay bills and EMIs. These are women who are supporting their families, who are challenging gender stereotypes and traditions just by going to work every day.

Of course, they deserve that little bit of help. In fact, they deserve more. Some governments have experimented with employment quotas for women in the private sector. A variation on that theme would be tax benefits for companies which have a certain percentage of women employees.

Of course, the lakhs of women working in the unorganised sector need help too, more help than their sisters with pay packages and structured benefits, but let’s not miss the wood for the trees here. While the bill has a few loopholes which need to be plugged, it’s undeniable that India’s working women need every bit of help they can get. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill may or may not encourage more women to join the workforce. But it definitely will make life easier for those women already working.
A worthy objective, and worth the labour pains.

First Published: March 22, 2017, 5:02 PM IST