By Maya Palit
The Maternity Benefits Bill, which had been passed in the Rajya Sabha winter session, was finally passed by the Lok Sabha yesterday. To remind you of what it involves, it is an extension of the the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961, which safeguards the employment of women during the maternity period, and makes provisions for a ‘maternity benefit’ or a paid absence from work.
What the latest amendment to the bill will involve is an increase in maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks for the first two children. After that, it will stay at 12 weeks. Maternity leave for mothers who are adopting a child will be made available in cases where the mother adopts an infant below the age of three months, as well as to the biological mother. Additionally, places with more than 50 employees must make arrangements for a creche facility for working mothers, and be open to nursing mothers working from home. (This emphasis on breastfeeding itself borders on being exclusionary to women who may choose not to breastfeed their children for a variety of reasons.)
While all this is happy news, it could be worth keeping in mind the obvious — that these benefits apply only to women in the organised sector, whereas women working in the unorganised sector (and often in massively exploitative set-ups) such as daily wage labourers, farmers, home-makers, would not be able to avail of them. Out of the (approximately) 29.7 million women who get pregnant in India every year, those working in the organised sector are a minority. So while the Bill being passed is certainly getting the ball rolling on altering the mindset to the maternity process, it hasn’t included any provisions for people whose occupations aren’t even recognised by labour laws.