Women working in the organised sector have reason to be happy over the increase in the term of paid maternity leave from the existing 12 weeks to a high 26 weeks under a law passed by Parliament on Thursday. That the revised maternity benefit will be a boon for 1.8 million women and will apply to all establishments employing 10 or more people shows that for once the benefit would be real and not an eyewash.
It is fair that the entitlement will be for only up to the first two children and that for third child, the entitlement will be for only 12 weeks. This should act as a deterrent against producing more than two children. Except Canada and Norway where there is paid leave benefit of 50 weeks and 44 weeks respectively, the new entitlement in India is better than or on a par with all other countries. It is to be hoped that women would use the benefit to good effect in bringing up their offspring with the care and attention that is so vital in the child’s formative months.
That the new law has provided for 12 weeks of maternity leave to a woman who legally adopts a child below three months of age and a commissioning mother (defined as a biological mother) who uses her egg to have a surrogate child is thoughtful and realistic.
The Bill, which has been passed by both Houses and now only requires Presidential assent to become law, also requires every establishment with 50 or more employees to provide crèche facilities within a prescribed distance. The woman will be allowed four visits to the crèche in a day. This will include her interval for rest.
While in these times of nuclear family such a law is apt, it would be counter-productive if this leads to fewer young women being employed by companies and establishments to cut down on their wage bills. The governments at the Central and State levels will have to keep a strict vigil to ensure that joblessness does not grow among women as a result of the higher paid leave benefit.
Women themselves would have to watch out that in the 26-week absence from work they do not lose the requisite job skills. Besides, considering that only 10 per cent of the women workforce is in the organised sector, it would be advisable that some attention be given even to women who are in the unorganised sector. Safeguards must be built into the system to ensure that they are not exploited and are given their due.