Are Workplaces Actually Following the Maternity Leave Policy?

For most women in India who seek maternity leave, discrimination is still alive and kicking in 2021.

Anita learned this reality the hard way. An employee at one of the largest banks in the country, she faced a lot of difficulties while applying for the leave.

“When I was about six months pregnant, my boss got really angry and threw water bottles at me. It was hardly an issue that needed a reaction like that,” she told LiveWire.

She later got to know that her boss got angry because when he had recommended her name for promotion, she had yet to inform the office about her pregnancy. “I had got a double hike with the promotion, but had to go on a leave after a couple of months because of my pregnancy,” she added.

Maternity leave policy

India has had a maternity leave policy on the books since 1961, with the Maternity Benefit Act. Besides maternity leave, the law provides for the healthcare of the mother as well as the child. However, there are concerns that the law may have had an unintended consequence – of deteriorating the labour market for women, even as women already face a lot of stigma by virtue of their gender, which is linked to our gendered assumptions of what a woman can or cannot do.

Also read: Virat Kohli’s Paternity Leave and Indian Cricket’s Misogyny Problem

On March 9, 2017, the Lok Sabha passed new amendments in the Maternity Benefit Act, under which maternity leave for women in the organised sector was increased from 12 weeks to 26. Besides, as per clause 29, a female employee is eligible for a six-week long wage in case of pregnancy miscarriage or medical termination. Other important features of the law include a provision for nursing mothers to work from home, as well as nursing breaks for women with young children. The new law also made it mandatory for every workplace with 50 or more employees to have a creche facility at a prescribed distance.

However, women continue to face discrimination at their workplaces.

Sanjana* used to work at a very senior position at India’s biggest ad agency. She was leading a brand and her job was extremely demanding. It was during this time that she also got pregnant, but she continued to work 18-hour shifts through weekdays and weekends, against her gynaecologist’s advice. At 34, her pregnancy was considered a geriatric pregnancy. She had an extremely complicated pregnancy where she bled was after six weeks Her doctor advised her against pushing herself so much, but she had no choice when it came to work.

Then, in her 12th week, she was sitting in a very ‘big’ meeting when she started to feel unwell. When she went to the bathroom to check, she found that she had bled through her clothes and had to immediately rush to the hospital. The doctors prescribed her absolute bed rest as she kept bleeding for four weeks after that day.

Her manager, however, asked her leave so that they could look for a replacement. “They said that they cannot have a big brand running without a senior employee,” she said. The agency paid her for the first three months of leave and the next three were unpaid. She said that she had beg for more unpaid leave, but all her requests went unheard.

“This agency is supposed to be a proponent of ‘gender equality’ with the kind of ads they make, but the reality is far from it,” she added.

Social stigma

According to a 2013 World Bank study, only 27% of women over the age of 15 work in India. It has the lowest rate of female participation in any workforce in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries, with 64% being the highest in China. A 2015 survey of 1,000 women working in Delhi and its surrounding areas found that only 18–34% of married women continue to work even after having children.

The study shows that women are not seen as long-term assets by firms. It is expected that they will eventually leave after giving birth to their child. Maternity leave also gets in the way of promotions as they are based on performance and the duration of maternity leave is broadly rated as ‘zero work’. There is hardly any company that provides incentives to retain pregnant women or nursing mothers. Sometimes, a firm prohibiting an employee from paying the month-long salary without completing any work can cause real financial trouble.

The prevailing gender discrimination in India determines its social and economic direction. India has fallen 28 spots to rank 140th among 156 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index in 2021. In our society, there remains a continuing expectation that women will serve as the primary caregivers as far as the raising of children is concerned.

Also, workplace norms prioritise instrumental efficiency and don’t consider the work of women who take time off to engage in activities that are not considered “work” (example: caregiver and child-bearers). This really needs to change and we should be addressing the loopholes of the maternity leave policy because of which a lot of women in MNCs are shown the door. Also, our discourse cannot be complete until we talk about the women employed in small businesses. The time to have a constructive discussion on the matter to make the policy sustainable in the long run is long overdue.

*names changed

Jagisha Arora has an MA in History and has worked as a freelance writer. She writes on issues of gender, caste and democracy.

Featured image credit: Pixabay