The enhancement of paid maternity leave for women in the organised sector to 26 weeks from 12 is a progressive step, one that should lead to closer scrutiny of the difficulties faced by unorganised workers who fall beyond the scope of any worthwhile labour welfare measures. It is wholly welcome that such a benefit is being introduced with an amendment to the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, in line with several expert recommendations including that of the World Health Organisation, which recommends exclusive breastfeeding of children for the first 24 weeks. Giving some benefits to adoptive mothers and women who get children using embryo transfers as well signals India is in step with social changes. Positive though it is, the amended law is expected to cover only 1.8 million women, a small subset of women in the workforce. For many poor millions in the unorganised sector, the only support available is a small conditional cash benefit of ₹6,000 during pregnancy and lactation offered under the Maternity Benefit Programme. The reported move to restrict even this meagre benefit to the first child for budgetary reasons is retrograde and must be given up. If, as Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya has said, the Centre is giving organised sector women workers a humble gift, why has the damage done through the Budget not been reversed?
Providing benefits for women and children is a societal responsibility which can be funded in a large country through a combination of general taxation and contributory payments from those who have the means. Health care should be treated as a right and deliveries handled without cost to women; the income guarantees during the 26-week period can be ensured through a universal social insurance system. Such a policy would harmonise the varying maternity benefit provisions found in different laws that govern labour at present. There would also be no discrimination against women in recruitment by employers who currently have to factor in benefit payments. Conversely, women would not suffer loss of income simply because they cannot remain in employment after childbirth. Beneficiaries covered by the latest amendment must be protected from discrimination through clear provisions. Mandating creche facilities to help women workers under the changed law is a forward-looking move, but it will work well only with a good oversight mechanism. Women’s empowerment can be achieved through universal initiatives, not by imposing conditionalities to avail benefits. Access to welfare support has become even more critical as workers migrate frequently due to economic changes. The twin imperatives are, therefore, to create more jobs for women in a diversified economy, and to provide social opportunity through maternal and child welfare measures.
Source : Partial cover
Courtesy : The Hindu – Editorials