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The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, was announced a couple of months ago by the Government of India. It is now referred to as the Maternity Benefit Amendment Act, 2017 and has become effective from 1st April 2017. A recent release from the government has also clarified that this Act will apply to all women who are already on leave, at the time of the enforcement of the Act (that is, 1st April, 2017). It will however, not apply to women who have availed of 12 weeks of maternity leave, before the Amendment Act's enforcement date.
The amendments to the Act have made it one of most discussed policy changes. There have been several discussions in different networks on its merits and demerits and organizations have started planning the way forward. Some have shown enthusiasm, some have shared cautious optimism and there are others who believe that it hinders the cause of creating a gender-equal workplace.
Let us have a comprehensive picture of what these aspects are. From a positive perspective here are some elements that have been raised in favor of the policy by organizations who have shared their opinion:
First-of-its-kind Policy in India
Such a policy has never been passed or even discussed in India prior to this. That in itself makes it a unique policy because it is a step in the forward direction. This increase in maternity leave duration is reflecting as an Amendment of section 5 in the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, in sub-section (3). Women are known to drop out of the workforce due to lack of a support network, especially with nuclear families in the current times. The role of being the child's primary care-giver is done almost single-handedly by the mother. Work-life balance therefore becomes a daily challenge for women who are new mothers. Therefore, supportive policies from their organization can reduce their load and help them continue with their careers, as well as remain financially independent. Some companies specifically in the IT sector which have extended the leave now are Wipro, Mindtree, and Infosys. Others like HUL, Airtel, Google already had extensive maternity leave policies in place even prior to the government regulation.
Yet another organization that has sharpened its focus in this area, to create an inclusive workplace is Star India. They have a great paternity leave policy for 4 weeks that new fathers can avail of. Their maternity leave policy is also a 6 + 6 months, through which their women employees can get 6 months of paid maternity leave and following that, another 6 months of part-time, flexible working hours. In addition to that, there are wellness and counseling programs aligned as well.
A few other organizations are also offering paternity leave. Paternity leave can help lead to improved gender parity as it will enable new fathers to help and support their wives when a baby is born. Cummins India has 30 days of paternity, whereas there are several in the range of 7-15 days such as Microsoft India, Asian Paints, and PayPal. The top of this list currently is IKEA which has introduced a 6-month paternity leave, after the Maternity Policy was shared this year.
Work from Home Provisions
So far, work from home provisions and policies have always been discretionary. Sometimes it was the discretion of the organization to have such a policy. At other times, despite such a policy existing, it was the discretion of the immediate manager, whether the employee could avail of it or not. With a government regulation on that front, there could be a marked change in the way organizations implement it and the managers view it. This provision on "work from home" option will come into effect from 1 July 2017. Hence as per the new Act, "in case where the nature of work assigned to a woman is of such nature that she may work from home, the employer may allow her to do so after availing of the maternity benefit for such period and on such conditions as the employer and the woman may mutually agree."
This provision has been added as a new section 11A in the original Act, by stating that "Every establishment having fifty or more employees shall have the facility of créche within such distance as may be prescribed, either separately or along with common facilities"Many large organizations do have crèche or childcare provisions in their main or bigger offices. By making it a mandate for all organizations with 50 employees or more, the government is validating that this is a key factor in retention of women employees who are new mothers. Even if the organizations cannot have in-house crèches, they are required to have a collaboration with one which is close by, and the mothers can take 4 breaks to visit the baby. This provision for crèche is also applicable only from 1st July 2017.
Adoption Leave has also Become a Reality Through this Policy
There was a lot of debate on how the duration of leave for adoptive mothers should have been the same as those who have had the baby naturally. Even so, with the new maternity leave policy coming into play, and this provision added, it is a step forward since earlier there was no regulation along these lines and it was entirely left to the organization's discretion on whether they wanted to have such a policy or not. As per the Amendment, "A woman who legally adopts a child below the age of three months or a commissioning mother shall be entitled to maternity benefit for a period of twelve weeks from the date the child is handed over to the adopting mother or the commissioning mother, as the case may be".
A few organizations like P&G India, Flipkart, NDTV, Google, TCS are among the path-breaking organizations that have had the adoption leave provision even before the new policy was announced. But, many organizations did not have the same before this announcement.
Breaking all norms, HarperCollins Publishers India have recently launched their 'Pawternity Leave' as well! This applies to employees adopting pets and becoming pet parents.
However, there are as many valid viewpoints, when it comes to those who believe that it's likely to be detrimental to women instead of being a supportive policy to assist them.
Some of the adverse implications being anticipated are:
1. Reduced Hiring of Women Employees: Companies in the private sector may start perceiving this as a cost and reduce their hiring of women into the workforce. Investing in different aspects such as longer duration of paid leave, crèche facilities/partnerships are challenges particularly for mid-sized organizations or start-ups as well with 50 employees or more. So they might make a subtle shift in their hiring patterns, to reduce the applicability of this policy on their set-up. This in turn can reduce gender diversity and reverse the efforts that are needed to create inclusive workplaces. However, for even mid sized and small organizations, and start-ups, the key question on cost that they need to ask themselves is not about what they will incur through this new policy's application, but what they will possibly save if they have to spend money and time, in looking for a replacement hire incase their existing women employees do not rejoin? This will include additional costs of re-training and so on. Once they assess both the costs, coming to an informed decision will be easier.
2. Role Availability and Career Progression Challenges for Women Who Rejoin: From the perspective of those who will rejoin after 6 months or probably slightly longer, women employees will need to get a better idea of the kind of roles/profiles that they receive even their existing organizations. If they were in roles which required extensive travel, despite the 6-month long policy, they will not be able to do so till the baby does not grow older. Hence those kinds of profiles will not be provided by organizations even if it enables their career growth. Secondly, in a market like the current one, new skill and technology requirements come up quickly. So women who take a complete break beyond 6 months will need to work on up-skilling or adding new aspects to their portfolio so that they do not face redundancies due to the gap. A smoother re-transition or re-assimilation process is possibly the only alternative.
3. No Application of the Policy to a Huge Set of Working Women Who Either Run Businesses from Home or are in the Unorganized Sector: There is a sizable population of women in the unorganized sector in India. Not only that, there are many who run small scale businesses or even cottage industries from home. The Policy does not cover them despite the fact that their needs will be the same and their conditions unchanged. A lot of criticism on this front has come forth because many feel that the policy widens the divide that already existed between women who had at least some provisions available from the beginning, and those who had no policy coverage at all.
Therefore, while there are those who are adapting to the new mandate, there are several others who are questioning the viability of the policy and if it is truly in favor of women in the long run. It is yet to be seen whether there is a concrete shift in terms of the policy's impact when it comes to retaining more women in the workforce. Apart from supporting a gender-diverse workplace that is the core intent of the policy.
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