At the outset, let me be forthright enough to state unambiguously that time and again it has been noticed that employers have been blithely resorting to subject pregnant women to weird discrimination of all kinds and is used as a ruse to sack her and terminate her services with immediate effect and also denying her all the facilities to which she is entitled as of right for all the services which she had rendered as an employee. Even the government is seized of this gnawing problem and this alone explains why it has finally woken up to the gargantuan challenge posed to pregnant women employees. The government must now deliver promptly and provide iron-clad protection to pregnant women from sacking on any grounds and also provide with her all other benefits like more maternity leave so that she can come to terms with the situation without compromising with her health or anything else which jeopardizes her long-term interests including her health which of course should always be of the vital concern.
I would not be doing justice with the readers if I fail to mention here that just recently a government panel headed by the Women and Child Development (WCD) Secretary has in no uncertain terms recommended that a thorough review of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 is imperative with the object to plugging the loopholes which currently adversely affect women employees and there were many such examples where employers resorted to sacking pregnant women citing ‘misconduct’ as a convenient ruse to deprive them of maternity benefits and other benefits to which she was legally entitled as an employee. It has left no ambiguity in clearly suggesting that women employees be vested with the choice of availing the duration of paid absence as per her own discretion and convenience. All said and done, it has also minced no words in suggesting unequivocally that to plug loopholes in the law on maternity benefits, it favoured forbidding the sacking of a pregnant employee on any ground.
This Planning Commission’s Working Group, which was entrusted with the onerous task of reviewing the Maternity Benefit Act 1961, has also strongly recommended increasing the duration of maternity leave. However, it must also be pointed out here that it did not specify by how many days the maternity leave should be increased. A government official associated with the group categorically said: “It would be the government along with a stakeholder ministry like the Women and Child Development which will have to take a final call.”
Also, the panel, headed by the Women and Child Development Secretary came out vociferously in favour of making maternity leave flexible thus permitting a mother to avail it as per her own convenience. Here it also must be brought out that, as of now, women are entitled to avail twelve weeks of paid maternity leave. Precisely, central government employees are eligible for availing up to 180 days of maternity leave with full pay benefits. For state government employees, it must be pointed out that the paid leave period varies from 120 to 135 days. In the private sector, this period of maternity leave is of a maximum of 84 days. The report unambiguously said: “Review the Act with a view to increasing the number of days of leave that a woman worker can take and to give her the choice of utilising the period of paid absence as per her own convenience.”
No matter how much chauvinistic men may fret and fume over women availing of various maternity benefits, they cannot wish away the fact that women now constitute an increasingly greater part of the workforce and in coming years it will only further multiply. So, they must come to terms with the ground reality and accept the fact that pregnant women must avail of a longer period off for taking full care of herself and her child with magnanimity. This is inevitable for not only protecting women’s long-term interests but also in absorbing them into the mainstream like all others and in enabling her to maintain a harmonious balance between her houseplace and workplace without compromising on any. For this to happen, the recommendations made by the panel as mentioned above must be immediately implemented.
By Sanjeev Sirohi