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Why India’s New Maternity Law Is Bad News For Women

It opens a can of worms for employers too.

25/05/2017 8:38 AM IST | Updated 25/05/2017 2:50 PM IST
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The Maternity Bill has been in force since 1 April, bringing in a host of issues in its wake. There have been over the economic forces that come into play while implementing the tenets of the Act, with HR managers across disciplines trying to find solutions to their specific requirements within the framework mandated by the government.

Unfortunately, some talent managers are now thinking twice before hiring women employees because it means they have to pay for a resource who may go on leave for 26 weeks. They are also not eager to set up childcare infrastructure which may or may not be used by the employees.

What the government did with CSR initiatives—making them tax-free and hence attractive to socially responsive companies—could also be emulated in the case of the Maternity Bill.

The government could have given employers the space to come up with a plan that works best for their employees. For instance, there are companies that are located far away from residential neighbourhoods. Parents are often averse to the idea of bringing their children to work if there's a long daily commute involved. For some companies, the issue is also the male-female ratio. Even if they have a significant number of employees, some of their centres may have a larger number of women than men. A childcare/crèche facility may be desirable in one company location and not in the other.

The cost of setting up crèches or sending employees on 26 weeks of paid leave is now to be borne by the company. The government could perhaps consider providing incentives such as tax breaks to parents, following the SODEXO model which has worked out quite well. It could also consider providing tax exemptions and subsidies for employees who are new parents. What the government did with CSR initiatives—making them tax-free and hence attractive to socially responsive companies—could also be emulated in the case of the Maternity Bill.

According to a Bloomberg report published in 2016:

"India's female workforce participation rates peaked at 37 percent in 2005 and fell to 27 percent as of 2014, according to data from the World Bank. The U.S. rate declined from 58 percent to 56 percent during the period, the data show."

Another report by Bloomberg-Quint cites the following statistics:

· "Only 23.7 percent of eligible Indian women are part of the workforce. Compare that to 75 percent of men

· In urban areas, this number drops further to only 16 percent. For men, the comparable number is 69 percent

· Even for those women who are part of the workforce, the unemployment rate is high. 8.7 percent compared to 4 percent for men."

It will take a more concerted and sustained effort to improve these numbers.

It is not enough to force the Maternity Bill upon employers. It is also important to create a work culture that encourages better gender-sensitivity...

It is not enough to force the Maternity Bill upon employers. It is also important to create a work culture that encourages better gender-sensitivity, safer modes of transport for women, street lighting and overall awareness. Some MNCs and tech companies have also started programmes such as "bring your mother-in-law to work" and "take your child to work" days to help key family members understand the importance of the work that most women do.

It's also important that employees and parents understand how the Bill may have encouraged fly-by-night operators who wish to make the most of this scramble to provide childcare support for women employees. They need to exercise caution before signing up with a service provider that does not comply with industry standards of quality and qualifications of the staff. The Maternity Bill can only succeed if all stakeholders take a more calibrated approach towards implementing it.

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