“Classification is inherent in legislation. To recognize marked differences that exist in fact is living law: to disregard practical differences and concentrate on some abstract identities is lifeless logic.”[i]
The participation of women in India in organized sector has been a matter of skepticism over all these years. The expectations from a woman to devote her entire life to her household and children have often curbed the inner aspirations and desires of many women. There have been many instances when a woman has been explicitly or tacitly been forced to give up her dreams under the garb of being the primary care taker of household and children. The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 was introduced to combat this issue. This act is applicable to the factories, plantations, mines, government establishments, shops and establishments under government Legislative or others recognized by the central government in which ten or more persons are employed or were employed on any day of the preceding twelve months. This act was also based on article 42 of the Indian Constitution which lays down the provision for just and humane working conditions and maternity relief.
The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 was amended in March 2017. The amendment increased the duration of paid maternity leave available for women employees 26 weeks from the existing 12 weeks. Moreover, it was made mandatory for the employers to educate the women, at the time of their appointment, about the maternity benefits available to them. Further, the provisions like the availability of “work from home” option to women even after their delivery strengthens the probability f the attainment of the objectives of this act. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 has emerged as the most relevant legislation in the arena of maternity laws.
Why was there a need for the enactment of such an act?
The internalization of the idea of gender-role association has been one of the biggest impediments in the progress of women. The idea that men and women should perform different and gender-specific roles because of their biological nature and function is a deeply entrenched notion that has been present in the society.[ii] This conceptualization of gender stereotypes has had a lot more effect on females than on their male counterparts in the various arenas of life. They have always been categorically perceived to act in a manner which revolves more around the household sphere of activities. This can be looked upon as a result of the presence of years of patriarchal practices.
The stereotypically conceptualized role of a woman as the sole responsibility holder of household and children consistently posed as an obstacle in the way of those women who aspired to attain success in the professional sphere along with the personal sphere of their lives. Further, the homogenization of the notion of woman as the primary care taker of her child often becomes an obstruction in the same. The idea is sacrosanct, however sacrificial in itself as well. The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 tends to be the legislation through which the Central Government was able to resolve this issue to a great extent. The judicial decisions such as the refusal of the Uttarakhand High Court in distinguishing between temporary, permanent or contractual workers[iii] under the purview of Maternity Benefit Act strengthen the objective of this act. Moreover, the question of maternity benefits for daily wage female workers, working on a regular basis, was raised in the landmark case of MCD v. Female Workers (Muster Roll)[iv]. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the daily wage female workers and upheld their rights to maternity benefits, on the principle of social justice demanding an affirmative effort to remove socio-economic inequalities.[v]
The concept of maternity benefit was first introduced in the Bombay Legislative Council on 28th July 1928. Dr. B R Ambedkar was a strong proponent of this legislation. He said, “It is in the interests of the nation that the mother ought to get a certain amount of rest during the pre-natal period and also subsequently”[vi]. It was later on followed by the other Indian provinces. The central government, along the same line, also passed three Acts, viz, the Mines Maternity Benefit Act of 1941, the Employees’ State Insurance Act of 1948 and the Plantations Labour Act of 1951.[vii] However, the provisions laid by each of these acts were inconsistent with one another. This led to the need of the enactment of a more uniform act. The Central government passed the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961. The Mines Maternity Benefit Act, 1941 and the maternity benefit provisions in the Plantations Labour Act, 1951 were repealed owing to the enactment of this act. Only the Employees’ State Insurance Act of 1948 kept on existing, along with the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961, in the field of legislations related to maternity benefits.
The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 was introduced as an act to ease the participation of women in organized sector and their public sphere. The Maternity Benefit Act aimed to overcome the challenges posed to the women in their professional lives owing to the generalized gender roles association. Its objective is to provide an equal opportunity to women who often tend to fall prey to the internalized patriarchal instincts of the society. The biological difference between a man and a woman doesn’t make it fine for them to have a difference in opportunities provided to them. The law comes into force to ensure the same by the provision of acts like the Maternity Benefit Act. It can be observed as an act based upon the principle of intelligence differentia mentioned under article 14 of the Indian Constitution. The observations made by the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Los Angeles, Department of Water & Power v. Marie Manhart[viii] :
“It is now well recognized that employment decisions cannot be predicated on mere ‘stereotyped’ impressions about the characteristics of males or females. Myths and purely habitual assumptions about a woman’s inability to perform certain kinds of work are no longer acceptable reasons for refusing to employ qualified individuals, or for paying them less. Even if the statutory language were less clear, the basic policy of the statute requires that we focus on fairness to individuals rather than fairness to classes.”[ix]
Womanhood and motherhood should never be looked upon as an obstacle in her way of progress and development. Anything acting like an impediment in a person’s growth should be eradicated from its roots. Law plays the role of eradicating such dysfunctional elements present in the society in order to ensure a free and fair chance of opportunities to everyone. Hence, it can be concluded that the Maternity Benefit Act is the law’s turn to appreciate the dichotomy of divine duty, the split motherhood.[x]
Edited by Ojaswi Gupta
Approved & Published – Sakshi Raje
[i] Morey v. Doud US 457, 472
[ii] Susan B. Boyd, Challenging the Public/Private Divide: An Overview in CHALLENGING THE PUBLIC/PRIVATE DIVIDE: FEMINISM, LAW, AND PUBLIC POLICY, 3-34 (ed. U. of Toronto, 1997).
[iii] Shalini Pathak v. State of Uttarakhand, 2014 SCC OnLine Utt 2233.
[iv] MCD v. Female Workers (Muster Roll), (2000) 3 SCC 224 : AIR 2000 SC 1274.
[vi] “Babasaheb on Maternity Benefit Bill in 1928.” Savari, 13 Apr. 2017, www.dalitweb.org/?p=3430
[vii] Sadanand Jha, “MATERNITY BENEFITS: AT PRESENT AND THEIR FUTURE IN INDIA.” Journal of the Indian Law Institute, vol. 18, no. 2, 1976, 332–343. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43952976. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.
[viii] City of Los Angeles, Department of Water & Power v. Marie Manhart [55 L Ed 2d 657 : 435 US 702 (1978)]
[x] P. Geetha v. Kerala Livestock Development Board Ltd., 2015 SCC OnLine Ker 71.