A pregnant woman aware of her rights regarding maternity leave in India

Maternity leave in India has always been a hot topic of discussion and debate. For women employees, the news of pregnancy brings a lot of worries and questions regarding their jobs. Whether they will be able to manage their professional responsibilities, get a paid maternity leave, or risk losing their jobs due to pregnancy are some of the top concerns triggering anxiety in would-be mothers.

Employers too have their own concerns, starting from sharing the maternity leave cost to hiring and training additional staff to handle the job of the woman employee on leave, and much more. Some employers may even get worried about additional infrastructure investment as mandated by the law.

What Is Maternity Leave in India

This refers to the time during which a pregnant or nursing woman takes a break from work before and/or after the birth of her child. Under the 1961 Maternity Benefit Act, female employees were allowed 12 weeks of paid maternity leave in India. However, the 2017 Amendment to the Maternity Benefits Act increased the period to 26 weeks.

According to this 2017 Amendment, pregnant women employees working in factories or companies, whether unorganised or organised, with ten or more employees, can now look forward to fully paid maternity leaves in India for a period of 26 weeks. Additionally, there’s a penalty for employers who don’t comply with the laws and regulations related to maternity pay and leave.

How Will the 2017 Amendment Help?

The 1961 Maternity Benefit Act ensured women employees receive a paid leave of 12 weeks post-delivery for taking care of their newborns. Every woman employee, irrespective of whether she was engaged as a permanent worker, working under a contract, or working via agencies was covered by this Act.

As the scenario changed a lot since 1961 and a large number of women became part of the workforce, it was felt that the 1961 Maternity Leave Act needed to be revisited and revised. The economic and social changes finally paved the way for the 2017 Amendment where the previously applicable Maternity Leave Act of 1961 was revised as The Maternity Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017.

Today, pregnant women or nursing mothers can get paid maternity benefits at the rate of their average daily wages in the three months prior to their maternity leave. However, the woman must have worked for the employer for a minimum of 80 days in the 12 months before the date of her anticipated delivery. Out of the 26 weeks, she can claim maternity leave for up to eight weeks prior to delivery.

It’s important to note here that women don’t always need to structure their paid maternity leaves this way. If you wish, you can take the entire period of 26 weeks’ leave subsequent to the delivery. Since 26 weeks is the maximum period of the claim, you can claim your leave for a smaller period as well if you feel you don’t need leave for the entire period at one go.

Female employees are also eligible for a medical bonus amounting to INR 3,500 in addition to the 26-week paid maternity leave or 12-week leave (in case the employee is already a mother of two).

Under the NFSA (National Food Security Act) 2013, lactating mothers and pregnant women are further eligible for a benefit of INR 6,000.

Who Can Benefit From the Maternity Leave Act?

Women belonging to the following groups can benefit from the Act:

  • Government civil employees: For their first two live-born children, these women are eligible to take a paid maternity leave in India of 180 days.
  • Private sector employees: Since maternity leave policies can differ from company to company, women in these sectors should discuss it with their HR department. It’s the duty of the company HR to draft and revise, where necessary, a detailed maternity leave policy and take women-friendly initiatives like letting pregnant women and nursing mothers work flexibly from home for better comfort.
  • Commissioning mothers: Biological mothers who use their eggs to generate an embryo, which is then planted in another woman (the surrogate mother), are entitled to a maternity leave of 12 weeks.
  • Adoptive mothers: Women who legally adopt a baby aged less than three months are entitled to a paid maternity leave of 12 weeks beginning from the day of adoption.
  • Post-pregnancy illness: Women affected by a critical illness after their pregnancy can get a benefit of 1 month.
  • Tubectomy cases: These women are eligible for a 2-week leave from the date of their tubectomy operation.

The 2017 Amendment brought some new provisions in the Act to benefit women, which are as follows: 

Crèche Facility

For each establishment that engages 50 or more employees, the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017 makes it mandatory to provide a crèche facility. It also requires that during the day, the employer permits women employees to visit the crèche 4 times.

Option to Work from Home

Enabling the provision of “work from home” for women was introduced by the Amendment, which could be exercised after the maternity leave period of 26 weeks expires. Based on their nature of work, women employees may avail of this benefit after discussing it with their employer and arriving at some terms that are mutually agreed by both parties involved.

Employee Awareness

For employers, it has been made mandatory by the Amendment to educate women at the time of their appointment about the maternity benefits they can avail of. The Amendment also mentions the illegal and unjustifiable termination of employment, where no reason is given for such termination that coincides with the first day of maternity leave. Such termination would be deemed to be termination due to pregnancy and thus, unlawful even when the employment contract mentions that the job could be terminated without the provision of reasons.

The Significance of Maternity Leave in India

Choosing to bring a child into this world is a life-changing decision that comes with quite a few commitments. The couple’s physiological and emotional well-being as well as resilience is tested during this period. In case both parents work and have no support system to fall back upon, taking responsibility for the child becomes a lot more difficult.

This is where paid maternity leave can help. As women are the primary caregivers and nurturers, Indian law has provisions for allowing women to take time off during childbirth and even after delivery. But how does maternity leave with maternity pay help women?

For one, getting time off helps the woman be better positioned to take care of herself and her baby. Second, paid maternity leave in India eases any financial strains that could have otherwise triggered chaos and discontentment in the family.

Pregnancy is associated with a lot of expenses, including doctor’s fees, prenatal care, the cost of immunisations, drugs, and labour, healthcare coverage for the mother throughout the period of nine months and the infant after that, and postpartum care. Thus, paid maternity breaks are tremendously valuable, especially for single mothers and low-wage workers.

In the domain of mental health, studies show that a comfortable birth and postnatal period decreases the chances of the mother suffering from postpartum depression and even lessens anxiety in babies.

Additionally, when women take the necessary days off, they can catch up on sleep and recover fast, which facilitates their quick return to work. And on their return, they typically show renewed vigour and commitment to handle their assigned tasks. Thus, maternal leave helps in staff retention and even aids in closing the gender pay gap.

The Dilemma of Employers Regarding Paid Maternity Leave in India

Unlike some other countries where government and employers share the cost of maternity leave, the entire burden has to be borne by employers in India. Additionally, hiring temporary staff to handle the work of the woman employee on leave means extra expenses for the employers. At times, such staff may even need to be trained, which adds to the financial burden of the company.

Another set of concerns for employers is regarding the crèche. The clause related to the setting up of a crèche as per the Maternity Leave Act in India means an added infrastructure investment that employers are worried about. Recruiting a trained staff to manage the crèche is another factor that’s often a headache for employers.

Wrapping Up

Despite these concerns, it goes without saying that paid maternity leave in India is the legal right of women, which their employers should offer them. It’s crucial that every HR drafts a detailed policy regarding maternity leave and communicate it to a pregnant woman (or better still, all women when hiring them) in a written format or via e-mail to make them aware of their rights and the details thereof.

By offering significant maternity leave, employers can support mothers to bond properly with their infants, handle their physical needs, and observe their vital developmental stages. Decent maternity leaves not just benefit women physically, mentally, financially, and emotionally but even promote a better employee-employer relationship.

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