TOI just threw the baby and the mother out with the bathwater

An editorial in TOI says the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act is bad news for business. Is anyone surprised?

ByRajyasree Sen
TOI just threw the baby and the mother out with the bathwater
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Rare is the moment when the government takes a proactive step to support and protect the women of this country. If we manage to make it alive from the womb, there’s a whole host of other obstacles to deal with – from consistent sexual discrimination to sexual crimes and harassment and often simply being relegated to the house (not always out of choice) to be the primary homemaker and caregiver.

To put things in perspective, India is ranked 121 out of 131 countries in female labour force participation (FLFP), according to a World Bank report. China’s FLFP figure in 2013 was at 63.9 per cent, while Nepal’s was at 79.9 per cent.  Multiple reports have stated that the reasons that keep female participation in the workforce low are a mixture of “the dominant patriarchal attitudes and narratives in the Indian society. There is often a ‘shame’ associated with women stepping out of home for a job, in many parts of the country. In order to work, women are often required to obtain the approval of men in the family — father, husband, brothers. For a lot of women, marriage, childbirth or the burden of household work (largely borne by women in India) culminates in the end of their work lives. This keeps many well-educated and employable women out of the workforce”.

If you are a woman in India, you don’t require a study to tell you this. You would be well aware of the lay of the land and the fact that the lot of working women in India, is frankly not a lot. Therefore, the government amendment to the Maternity Act, ensuring that women receive paid maternity leave of 26 weeks, should have been welcomed and commended. One would think. After all, even the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE) had stated, “India can increase its GDP by 16 per cent if it achieves gender parity in its workforce.”  

A rational mind would, thus, think that improving the economic and social status of women and the country’s bottom line would be enough reason to adopt any measure to ensure that women stay in the workforce and return to the workplace when and if they leave.

Now there are certain facts that might be a bitter pill for businesses and men to digest, but women are the only people in the human species who can give birth to a child. Since having a child is not the same as cutting your nails or hair, there is a certain amount of pre- and post-natal recuperation and care required for most women, where they may not be able to or want to leave their newborn child. This is out of the control of women and is almost a purely a biological requirement to emerge healthy and fit.

It has also been proven that every additional month of paid maternity leave leads to a 13 per cent reduction in infant mortality rate in low-income countries and the developing world. That means eight infant deaths are averted for every 1,000 live births. This is from a study done in McGill University by examining data of approximately 300,000 children born over eight years in 20 low-income and developing nations across Africa, Asia and Latin America. The study also combined health statistics for the children with information on government maternity leave policies in each country respectively. Paid leave was found to be connected to a range of health benefits, “both for mothers and babies, including reduced rates of postpartum depression, more breastfeeding and increased follow-through with routine infant check-ups and immunisations, previous research has shown”.

Therefore, a move by a government of a Third World country to ensure the country’s women receive a much-needed benefit, which will lower infant mortality rates and ensure women are able to rejoin the workforce without feeling short-changed, should be encouraged. Right?

Not if you read an editorial in The Times Of India though, which stated that the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act is bad news for business. I read the editorial quite dumbstruck by two aspects. One, the complete lack of empathy for women or understanding that their participation in the workforce could be such a large contributor to the GDP. And two, the absolute warped logic of the editorial.

The editorial began by stating: “The law, which raised the paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, is estimated to have created a net job loss of 11 to 18 lakh women in ten key sectors this year, according to a study.” It is not clear how paid maternity leave has managed this feat, but it’s a leap of logic that I felt I should run with. Why point out that the women might have left because they were to give birth – and would return to the workforce now that there is a Maternity Act which gives them an incentive to do so.

The pain point of the Maternity Act is reached quickly enough when it is stated in the second paragraph that “in the long run, [the Maternity Act] will encourage more women to stay in workforce, for many private businesses the cost for 26-week paid leave post-childbirth for their women employees is turning out to be financially unsustainable”.

That is the exact point of the Act. That “in the long run”, more women will stay in the workforce. But those poor companies, what about them?

It also states: “Any slump in the economy due to domestic or external factors will have direct consequences on the hiring of women in the private sector. As a result, companies may prefer male candidates during recruitment, dissuading women from entering the workforce, to begin with. The well-meaning objective of the Act is negated if half the workforce talent of India is held at bay and not included in development and GDP growth.”

There is no backing for this last statement. How is a slump in the economy resulting in more male candidates being preferred?

There is some semblance of reasoning in the last paragraph, though. It states, “The government must take cognizance of employment data since the Act was implemented. If job losses are substantial, the government should review the Act and either reduce the paid maternity leave or else extend substantial tax benefits or subsidies to firms that provide it. It is unfair to expect private businesses to suffer massive losses on account of a financially unviable initiative”. The first part is again illogical because if the women are on maternity leave and then rejoining the workforce, these are not job losses per se. The second part though, does make sense. Ideally, the government should extend some tax benefits to companies so that the financial hit isn’t borne by the companies alone and as a result, do not use the Maternity Act as a reason to hire men over women.

Of course, since we are no longer in the Dark Ages, most companies have to ensure gender parity while hiring employees. One would think that it would be understood that short-term losses need to be swallowed for long-term gains of having women return to the workforce. Paid maternity leave will also encourage women to join the workforce in the first place, now that they know that they will not lose their job because of a biological function which they did not choose to be the sole specialists of.

It’s worrying that an editorial would encourage or promote a decrease in paid maternity leave in a country which needs to bring its women onto an equal playing field. The study being referred to has been undertaken by a company called TeamLease, which according to TOI “presents stark statistics that provide a rather grim view on women’s hiring in the short term after the Act”.

TOI itself states that “the amendment entitles working women to a 26-week paid leave, up from the earlier 12 weeks, something that progressive companies were already offering. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act…was considered a landmark reform that positioned India among the top progressive nations, enabling women to stay in the workforce after childbirth.”

Yes, the mind boggles with all this doublespeak.

The TeamLease study was conducted among 300 employers across 10 key sectors — aviation, BPO/ITeS, real estate, education, e-commerce, BFSI, IT, manufacturing, retail and tourism. TeamLease Services co-founder and executive VP Rituparna Chakraborty says, “Historical data shows that the Indian workforce has been losing women workers at the rate of 28 lakh per year for seven years from 2004-05 to 2011-12. The net job loss (11-18 lakh for 10 sectors for FY19) over and above this number is attributable solely to the Amended Maternity Act.”

Again, there is no clarity on how the two are connected and on whether these women have taken maternity leave and whether they are or aren’t returning to the workforce.

To run with one study of 300 people, to decry a much-needed progressive Maternity Act, seems more than a little ill-informed and myopic. Economists in the US, who have been studying the economic benefits of paid maternity leave, have stated, “Paid leave raises the probability that mothers return to employment later, and then work more hours and earn higher wages. Paid leave does not necessarily help businesses — but it does not seem to hurt them, either.” That we are still questioning this in India, is frankly shocking and symptomatic of our attitude of giving women the short end of the stick and not seeing the bigger picture.

Again, in a display of irrationality, the TOI report states: “Employers have indicated in the study that post-maternity attrition, which used to be a staggering 56 per cent, would come down to 33 per cent over the medium term after the amendment. While the post-maternity retention cost (at 80-135 per cent of annual salary for each beneficiary woman employee) is seen as a judicious investment by some employers, others see it as a prohibitively expensive proposition. The 100 per cent employer-funded model of the Act is seen as unviable by some sections of industry.”

When short-term business gains start dictating whether or not a government measure — which will benefit an entire section of society and the country’s GDP in the long term — is worth the monetary pain, and editorials start propagating this view, you know that lucre is what makes the world spin. And that while India might have the third-highest number of billionaires in the world, India will remain 120 among 131 countries in female labour force participation rates and at 17 per cent of GDP the economic contribution of Indian women will remain less than half the global average.

Maybe someone should inform TOI and TeamLease that India could “boost its growth by 1.5 percentage points to 9 per cent per year if around 50 per cent of women could join the workforce”. I didn’t say it, the World Bank did. Now that might be a finding worth reporting and propagating.

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