Pregnant Women Demand Adequate Safeguards and Maternity Benefits in India

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Actor Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan’s pregnancy and the impact it has had on the filming of Madhur Bhandarkar’s ambitious project, ‘Heroine’, may have snowballed into a huge controversy but it’s gone beyond the immediate case, with heated debates on a woman’s right to work and her maternity benefits now making the headlines. Once again, the spotlight is on the fine undercurrents that every pregnant woman faces at her work place.

More than 120 countries around the world take the welfare of pregnant women into account by ensuring paid maternity leave and health benefits by law. Even the Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of choice to a woman. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 ensures that pregnant women aren’t discriminated against. The Act states that an employer cannot refuse to hire a woman because of her pregnancy related condition as long as she is able to perform the major functions of her job. It further states that an employer cannot fire or force an employee to leave because she is expecting.

There’s also the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, that directs the State to make adequate provisions for maternity leave and benefit to women employee. In fact, it is illegal to dismiss someone on account of pregnancy or any illness during pregnancy and an employer who violates the provisions of the Act is liable to imprisonment up to three months or fine up to Rs 5,000 (US$1=Rs 44.6) or both.

Big Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs), public and private sector banks, the IT/ITES (Information Technology Enabled Services) sector, and other multinational companies are generally known to be sensitive to the needs of their female staff, especially when they are pregnant. Such organisations have provisions for maternity leave, which may vary from three to six months.

But, does all this make the professional life of an expectant woman easy? Unfortunately, no. Because most of these provisions are largely limited to being on paper only. There have been numerous instances of subtle discrimination where situations have been created causing women to give up their regular work.

Take the case of Chandigarh-based Gulshan Kaur (name changed). Though she had been working as a regular employee in a private bank for over two years – and was even quite popular with her colleagues – when she became pregnant she realised that it isn’t easy for an expectant woman to catch a break in the fast-moving financial circles. She recalls, “I suffered from severe morning sickness during the early days of my pregnancy. Nausea, vomiting and giddiness made me feel very sick. When I asked my boss for a month’s leave, he flatly refused. I even offered to go on leave without pay. But even that didn’t work out and I was forced to resign.”

Gulshan wasn’t able to fight for her maternity leave or any other benefits and she is currently working on an off-roll basis. As per the off-roll arrangement, though she is paid a salary, she is not given a salary slip, which prevents her from availing any benefits. Her situation is more or less like that of a daily wage worker. Moreover, as an off-roll employee she is dependent on a sympathetic HR or senior for any sort of perks.

Then there’s also Deepika Kulkarni (name changed), who used to work in a fast-food restaurant in Mumbai. Despite having discharged her duties perfectly, owing to the fact that she didn’t suffer from any pregnancy related problems during the first six months, Deepika’s immediate boss was always looking for ways to fire her. The reason: her maternity leave was going to come up very soon.

Admits F. J. Dy-Hammar, Chief of International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Conditions of Work Branch, who has overseen the report, ‘Maternity Protection at Work’, “In all parts of the world, working women who become pregnant are faced with the threat of job loss, suspended earnings and increased health risks due to inadequate safeguards for their employment.”

Today, across the globe, inflation has made it imperative for women to contribute to the household income. In fact, in many homes, it is the women who provide the main source of income. According to the ILO, in India alone, an estimated 60 million people live in households maintained only by women. These include Below the Poverty Lines (BPL) families as well as the upwardly-mobile.

So what happens when these women decide to have children and are forced out of their workplace when they become pregnant? Do any of them fight back, taking the legal route? According to Anita Irani, a matrimonial lawyer attached to Majlis, a Mumbai-based centre for rights discourse, “Majority of pregnant women bear the trauma of working in an unfriendly atmosphere rather than approach the court. How will they prove the harassment? It is so subtle. A court case involves money and women need a job. They would rather silently take a break and look for another job later than voice their angst.”

This scenario isn’t restricted to India alone. Pregnancy discrimination complaints filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) jumped 39 per cent from 1992 to 2003, according to a recent analysis of government data by the Washington-based National Partnership for Women & Families. During the same time, the nation’s birthrate dropped nine per cent.

How do women deal with this discrimination? With the legal route seldom even considered, many, especially in industries like hospitality, IT, media and entertainment – where the hours are long and night shifts commonplace – resort to hiding their condition till the time it becomes inevitable to tell. Perhaps something like that probably happened in Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan’s case as well – from which this entire dialogue has emerged.

When it comes to the entertainment industry, a woman’s position is particularly tricky. And there are not many sympathisers. Anuradha Tewari, writer of the film, ‘Heroine’, which was to star Aishwarya, has been quoted saying, “This is the visual medium. The character in ‘Heroine’ can’t be pulled off by someone pregnant. Forget the physical strain and emotional stress and all that jazz, we can keep debating that ad nauseum … it simply doesn’t fit into this role. This is a strictly an adult film with mature content.”

Producers and directors in the Hindi film industry are now considering adding pregnancy clauses in future contracts to safeguard against any losses. But advocate Anita Bafna, who is attached to the Mumbai High Court, says, “Though they can have a clause in the contract they sign with the female actor such a clause doesn’t hold any water in a court of law as mostly these are one sided. In such cases mutual adjustments have to be made.”

Both Bafna and Irani admit that in high profile jobs, where the woman’s position is central, pregnancy does lead to many problems. But there is no excuse for victimising a pregnant woman by harassing her, stopping her promotion or sidelining her when she returns from her maternity leave. Pregnancy books advise women to be unapologetic when breaking the news to their employers, but will that ever be possible if such attitudes continue to prevail?

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.