Maternity Benefit is a Right not a Concession

Aditya Varun Bhat
Women comprise half the human kind, inhabiting this world. It may be no exaggeration to say that all humanity is because of the women, as birthing and upbringing the humans during the most crucial days is their fort. That makes the Maternity Benefits is a vital need. Governments have recognized this need since early times. Paid maternity leave has been a recognized norm in the service conditions. The extent of maternity leave has also been increased to six months. Even a fortnight-long paternity leave has also been provided by the central government. However. The private sector has been slow in recognizing maternity benefits as a due right of the female staff. The situation is still worse in the unorganized sector.
Today, women play an important role in the labour market. This participation of women in the work force has increased significantly, particularly in the urban areas. That makes it necessary to ensure that women are provided with conducive working environment. Apart from easing the continuity of the human race, Maternity Benefits preserve the self-respect for motherliness, protect the health of women, and complete safety of the child and mother. Maternity benefits are a necessity so that women need not worry about losing their job in bearing a child. These benefits assure women of their jobs so that they can spend quality time with their new born.
One of the first landmark judgments of the apex court in this regard was the case Air India v. Nergesh Meerza(1981) 4 SCC 335), which laid down a foundation stone. In this case Indian Airlines Corporation and AIC Act had put forward certain conditions regarding termination and retirement of its employees. One of the conditions with respect to Air hostess was that she would retire from her job in case of first pregnancy. The court held that such conditions laid down by AIC was unethical because forcing an employee to terminate her service on becoming pregnant would amount to forbidding her not to have any children in future. The court held that just because an employee gets pregnant during her tenure at work should not be one of the grounds for termination and most importantly it should not be considered as a disability but a natural outcome of marriage and any discrimination based on pregnancy would be considered highly arbitrary. Thus it declared that every working woman is entitled to maternity Benefit and her employer is liable to pay her the benefits.
The Maternity Benefit Act was enacted in 1961 upon article 39(e) and (f) of the Constitution of India which states that it is the duty of the government to ensure the strength and health of its workers which includes both men and women. The Maternity Benefit Act has been amended nearly six times and the latest amendment took place in the year 2017. The main aim of maternity benefit is to provide for the maintenance of women and her child. The objective of the act is to regulate the employment of women in certain establishments for a certain period before and after the birth of the child. This Act is applicable to different sectors like mines, factories, circus industry, plantations, shops and establishments which are employing 10 or more persons.
In the recent case of Rachna Chaurasiya vs. State of U.P. and Ors. (2017 (11) ADJ 399), the court observed that state should grant Maternity Leave to all family employees with full pay for 180 days under Section 5 (3) of Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, irrespective of the nature of employment of the employee. In Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Female Workers ( AIR 2000 SCC 224),the female workers who were on probation and employed on muster roll claimed that they were entitled to avail the Maternity Benefit. As per Article 39 and 42 of the Directive Principles of State Policy the court held that a woman at the time of her pregnancy cannot be forced to take up hard labour as it would be injurious to her health as well as affect the heath of the child. Hence the court held that the woman is entitled to avail the benefit for certain period before and after delivery.
Since independence a plethora of committees and commissions have addressed the issues of comprehensive reforms to various aspects of labour and labour management relations. The State governments have administered and framed the legislation on maternity benefits. Now most of the states are inclined towards adopting the central act. This is because the benefits offered under the Central act are much superior to the state laws and provides various possibilities which were not provided for earlier. The National Commission Report on labour clearly states that the administration of the Acts in all the States is the responsibility of the factory inspectorates. The Coal Mines welfare Commissioner is in charge of it in the coal mines and the Director General of Mines Safety is in charge in mines other than coal.
The Maternity Benefit Act has placed the responsibility on the employers for providing the benefits. The commission also noticed that some legislation has led to a tendency among some employers not to employ married women and even discharge women workers on signs of pregnancy. Hence the commission recommended that a Central Fund should be established for maternity benefit on the lines suggested for Workmen’s Compensation. And all the states must follow the maternity benefits act of 1961.
Maternity Benefit Act aims to regulate the employment of women during the period of child birth. One of the drawbacks of this act is that most of the women work in the informal sector and these rules are not followed strictly in those sectors because no clarity of the Act is given to them, and we mostly see pregnant ladies doing hard labour for example in construction sites etc. and hence more emphasis need to be given towards the informal sectors. The new amendments in the Act make it clear that the cost of crèche provided by the employers is completely born by them.
It will not be out of place to add that a change in attitudes is also needed, here. Unlike in some of the western countries where both parents take equal responsibilities, in India child care is treated as the sole responsibility of women. This mindset must change, especially in view of the women sharing the financial burden of the family.