Maternity Benefit Act, 2017: ‘An employee on paid leave is a non-performing asset’

31 March 2017 | by Shruti Kohli | NEW DELHI

It’s a good thing that India can look at it as a reason to celebrate. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017, is now a law and as it affects an extension of maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, it’s certainly a lot of leave and a lot of reason to rejoice. But the reality lies on the other side of revelry.

 

Out of sight, out of …

‘I have friends who were told during appraisals that they worked only eight months through the year,’ says Vidya RV, a Mumbai-based communications and PR professional and also a new mom. Maternity leave is paid leave but it is not counted as work time.

 

Vidya with her daughter Sahana

Vidya with her daughter Sahana

 

‘I am four to five years behind my peers who don’t have children,’ says Simarjeet Dave*, a 42 year old mom of two. ‘Despite having a strong family support from my in-laws as well as my own parents, and also a daycare right next door to my house, I just realised after all these years that I am running late.

 

It calls for immense maturity on the part of employers to be able to handle pregnancies and motherhood of their employees in a productive way. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near this kind of maturity,’ Simarjeet, a finance professional with a leading financial services company in Mumbai, tells The Petticoat Journal. I can at least be grateful they let me back in, she laughs.

 

 

She must have a very well-founded reason to be grateful to her employer for keeping her job safe. There are many who could not get that lucky.

 

Pregnant? That’s the door

‘I was asked to leave my job when I told them that I was expecting,’ says 27-year-old Shikha, who was working with a leading NGO in Delhi, which, ironically, works towards gender equality and, even more ironically, Shikha was counseling victims of gender inequality and sexual violence when she was working with this reputed organisation.  

 

 

Shikha, with son, Bhavya, and daughter, Gitali

Shikha with son, Bhavya, and daughter, Gitali

 

 

‘Now, after three years and two children, I am completely dependent on my husband. And I hate it. But I don’t have a choice,’ she regrets. Shikha is a born activist. Among other things, she refused to be known by her father’s or her mother’s or her husband’s surname. Even in official documents, her name doesn’t have a surname. ‘But when it comes to marriage and relationships, we remain enslaved by regressive intricacies which the society forces on us,’ she says.

 

You may still want to shrug this off as a one off case. Considering programmes like Deutsche Bank’s ‘Mothers-to-be’, and innovations like ICICI Prudential’s special bell curve to separately appraise new returnee moms, you may be tempted to think that the corporate world has matured quite a bit over the years. But like they say don’t be fooled by the calmness of the sea, there may be a crazy whirlpool spinning just an inch below the surface.  

 

It’s no surprise that the handful of companies, including Pepsico and ICICI Prudential, which were repeatedly approached for a reaction on this story, refused to speak to this publication.

 

In good company

But just before we paint them all black and white, Mumbai-based Ramya Krishnan tells us how her then employer, rating company CRISIL, came across a perfect gentleman during her pregnancy and maternity leave 14 years back. ‘My company got a computer installed at my house and I worked from home like I would from office. A little bit here and there was ignored. Even my promotion happened as scheduled. They did not hold it back or deny it,’ Ramya tells The Petticoat Journal. She simultaneously held two positions after her promotion as the Head of Marketing and Communication, South and Southeast Asia at S&P and also Head of Marketing and Communication at CRISIL.  

 

Ramya Krishnan with son Vedanth

Ramya Krishnan with son Vedanth

 

Fewer women in office

If more companies could be half this sensitive, the next Assocham study would not show a 10 per cent fall in the participation of women in the workforce in India like their recent study showed. A joint study by industry chamber Assocham and Thought Arbitrage Research showed that though the number of women in the workforce had risen from 34 per cent to 37 per cent during 2000-2005, it had dropped regularly since then falling to 27 per cent in 2014.  

 

The 12 weeks of paid leave have proved to be burden enough for companies. An extension to 26 weeks is feared to make it worse contrary to the expectation that it would add more women to the workforce. ‘It’s a liability for companies to pay a sleeping employee. An employee on paid leave is a non-performing asset for companies,’ the General Manager, HR, of a leading Gurgaon-based IT company tells The Petticoat Journal on conditions of anonymity.  

 

Crèche in the office

Vidya also points out to the flaws in the amendment which makes it mandatory for companies with 50 or more employees to have a crèche within a prescribed distance. ‘My company has two offices, one in BKC and another in Goregaon. Will both the offices get a crèche each? The rule is silent about this,’ she says.  

 

Even if there are crèches provided in every office, it will be more of a distraction. Unless the daycare management is extremely professional, it will only be convenient for them that the mom is in the same building. So they will not think twice before landing up beside her or calling her up every couple of hours to sort out her kid issues, Vidya analyses.  

 

Is it greener that side?

This does not look quite tempting. You might want to look for an alternative. Fly away? To the US? Well, Sneha Airani used to think that she is lucky to have got pregnant with her second child in the US which takes care of working moms much better. So there’s the State Disability Insurance and Paid Family Leave Benefits which pay 50 per cent salary for 8 weeks for C-section and 6 weeks for vaginal delivery. In India, no employee is covered by any such insurance.  

 

Sneha Airani with her daughters Samanvi and (baby) Sadhvi

Sneha Airani with her daughters Samanvi and (baby) Sadhvi

 

She had her first child in India and she was not employed then. By the time she was pregnant the second time, she had moved in with her husband and had started working as a contractor with a leading IT company in Palo Alto, California.  

 

‘They just let me go when they came to know that I was pregnant and a man was hired to replace me right in front of me,’ she tells this reporter over phone from Palo Alto. ‘It was extremely depressing. I had the house mortgage on me, there were the regular bills, my husband was away in India for work at that time. I had a premature delivery because of the stress. My daughter came out 10 days before the due date,’ says Sneha. It’s more about mindsets. Laws would not help unless people stop thinking in a certain way.

 

Now, if you are thinking the solution lies in getting liberated completely by becoming a freelancer rather than being a regular employee, here’s 33-year-old Mumbai-based Taruni Mathur for you.  

 

Taruni was a freelance screenplay writer of a couple of very well known TV shows (which she prefers not be named here). Then she got pregnant and it started becoming impossible for her to meet tight deadlines. Her son Ahan is a year old now.  

 

The general impression is that you just have to be at home and write. How can that be tiring? ‘No one understood that I needed to change my work regime and arrange it according to my pregnancy requirements,’ Taruni says. ‘It’s only after I got pregnant and became a mother that I realised it’s such a man’s world,’ she laughs.  

 

And where’s the father?

Everyone is celebrating the extension of maternity leave but no one has even mentioned anything about paternity leave or its extension, she says. No wonder it’s so difficult for men to understand the demands of maternity. ‘It’s awfully patriarchal to assume that only the mother needs that kind of leave,’ Taruni politely protests. She talks of some fathers who are not taking their entire year’s leave and saving it to use it after their baby is born.  

 

Meenakshi Vijay, Corporate Communication Specialist with Blue Ocean IMC, agrees, ‘They need to work on the paternity leave. It will help create a new balance in the workplace.’ Maybe the extension of 26 weeks has come after a thorough research but there is clearly much legwork left to be done before the end goal of increasing women’s participation in workforce is achieved.

 

Besides, mindsets need a royal overhaul.  

 

 

*name changed 

 

 

 

 

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