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Labour Pains in Labour Laws

“Give her a room of her own and … let her speak her mind … and she will write a better book one of these days”, said Virginia Woolf, in the 1920s, in her famous feminist essay,‘A Room of One's Own’, on giving ‘space’ to women writers in a literary tradition dominated by men. One could say the same in the context of the ‘space’ we must give to a woman’s biological ‘reproductive’ work, in order to unleash her potential in ‘productive’ work. Or is it about time that she claims her space?

Giving birth is a natural function which women, and only women perform. Biological births sustain humans as a species. Breastfeeding, and nurturing of the mother help the child, who is just out of the warmth of the mother’s womb’s to settle down in a big open world. Not to speak of the rapid brain development that takes place during this time, and the antibodies that flow into the child’s body through the mother’s first milk. But that’s not all women do. They paint, write, sing, cook, clean – and earn a living.

So the question is, can women have it all? Can they be good mothers and at the same time compete with men in the most challenging jobs? Can they break the glass ceiling while they make families and homes? What is the ideal time to have children so it doesn't interfere with one’s professional life – really early and in quick succession (not that a mother’s job is done after childbirth; it’s just beginning!) or really late after one has hit a professional high point (even though it would be a risk to squeeze a baby in through the last few ticks of the biological clock)?

Should women go for soft options at the outset – when choosing a profession or much earlier even, when choosing a specialization at college? The questions and trade-offs are endless and the choices life changing.

Of course, nobody asks – can men have it all? Because women are holding the entire domain of “care”, while men hold the “work”. We need to break this pattern of ‘slotting’ women and men

into stereotypical roles, which devalues – and sometimes makes invisible - the role of women and, thereby, helps perpetuate their social and economic subordination. For many women, especially those in poverty, ‘doing it all’ is a matter of survival – to juggle her time to fit in childcare, cooking cleaning, livelihood, etc. etc.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, on Women’s Day 2016, Women’s Rights Activists articulated the invisibility of women and their work and the urgent need to reach out to them. It says: “We would especially like to draw your attention to women’s work … everywhere women work simultaneously in fields, forests, water bodies, and at home; providing water, fuel, fodder, cooking, cleaning, caring of children, sick, elderly, yet they are often unpaid and sometimes get much lesser wages than men on farms, work sites, factories, and markets.

One of the factors that widens the set of choices in a democracy is the legal infrastructure. In this post, we are asking the question – How enabling are the laws of the land to make it easier and possible for women to have babies and still be able to go to work? Or the other way round – to go to work and still be able to have babies? Clearly, the answer would lie in the realms of maternity support – maternity entitlement is our preferred nomenclature – and childcare. In this post we will talk about the first. Drawing upon the experience of the industrialized countries India placed the issue in the arena of labour laws.

Maternity Entitlement

Labour laws in India cater essentially to the organized sector (establishments employing more than 10 workers). India passed the Maternity Benefit Act in the year 1961. It provided women in the organized sector paid leave for three months. The proposed amendment of 2016 has increased the entitlement to six months and also included progressive measures like paternity leaves, paid leaves for surrogate and adoptive parents, etc.

Welcome move. However, it leaves out approximately 93% of women workforce working in the informal sector (this includes all of the unorganized sector and parts of the organized sector).

According to a McKinsey & Co. report, The Power of Parity, 2015, that points out how the gender gap in employment is exacerbated by unfair conditions for working women who become pregnant :“In India 95% women workers are in the informal and unorganized sector and do not receive any wage compensation during pregnancy and after childbirth, although we expect them to rest, gain weight, improve their own health and then provide the baby with exclusive breastfeeding for six months. ”The Report endorses the view of the Economic Survey of India, 2016 (Ministry of Finance, Government of India), that public investment in human capital, in maternal and early life health and nutrition interventions, could well yield some of the highest returns.

While women remain invisible and unreached, criticisms on the proposed amendments are flowing from many directions: on the one hand, concerns are raised over the discrimination women face during hiring while, on the other, there are protestations about the rising costs to the company for hiring women. Feminist critics are worried that the new Act may, once again, underline childcare as the responsibility of women only.

Wage Compensation – complex issue

Not uniform for all workers of the same Employer – In the Government, for instance, the full time, on roll workers get full pay leave, the contractual ones do not get the same, even though it is a clear violation of the Act. They fall through the cracks created by the maze of contractors all along the supply chain.

Not standard across all states – Acts like the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act have left it to the mercy of the State Boards; where the Central Act mandates Rs. 1000, Delhi State provides Rs.12000, while U.P. recently issued a circular for providing three months of wages if the worker is working in the sector for five years (!).

Not easily implementable in the informal Sector – The bane of the sector is that the Employer is not easily identifiable. The not-so-small projects in the construction industry manage to come under the radar on account of Cess collection for Labour Welfare or the geographically focused nature of the job. In agriculture or the Services sector (e.g. domestic work) the activity is dispersed and the employer-employee one to one correspondence not easily located.

Maternity is a social function - of reproducing the future generation. She needs support as a family member, as a citizen and as a holder of human rights. It is time to value this contribution and not reward only women who are considered to be contributing economically.

Of the 2.9 crore women who get pregnant in India, every year, about 3-4 lakh gets covered through any Maternity Entitlement. The present Government’s intends to increase this number to 18 lakhs. Welcome move?

Why not the 2.9 crores? With political will, innovative thoughts on collective responsibility of financing it is possible.

To reap the demographic dividend things need to change. Fast.

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