The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 is a pivotal piece of legislation in India, inter alia, addressing the challenges faced by working women during their pregnancy (for brevity “the Maternity Act”). In a society deeply rooted with patriarchy biasness, women have always been forced to face an unjust challenge to continue working in their gestation period.
However, the Indian law makers, vide the Maternity Act, has tried to fight with this social inequality and furnish justice to women. In this piece of writing, we will be discussing the fundamental features of the Maternity Act along with the other relevant provisions of law as well as the stand of Indian judiciary in this battle of justice.
Historical Context and Legislative Framework
Enacted in 1961, the Maternity Act responded to the changing dynamics of urbanization, industrialization, and shifting social norms in India. It was a significant step forward, aiming to ensure the employment of working women during pregnancy by providing paid leave before and after childbirth.
The historical backdrop reveals a progression of laws, starting with the Bombay Maternity Benefit Act in 1929, which initially granted maternity benefits to female factory workers. This was followed by central statutes like The Mines Maternity Benefit Act, 1941, and The Plantations Labour Act, 1951. However, disparities among these legislations prompted the Maternity Act to bring uniformity across various sectors for pregnant working women.
Scope and Applicability
The Maternity Act aim to provide women with the breathing space to cope with their pregnancy without losing their work and livelihood. It extends to various establishments including but not limited to factories, plantations, and other performance-related occupations.
The Maternity Act applies to shops or establishments employing ten or more persons, as well as factories defined by the Factories Act, 1948. Importantly, the Act ensures that its benefits are accessible to all women in covered establishments, regardless of wage differentials.
For eligibility for maternity benefits, a woman employee must have worked for a minimum of eighty days in the twelve months preceding her expected delivery date. It is pertinent to note that this requirement is specific to maternity benefits, and does not extend to other facilities or payments under the Act.
Maternity Benefit Laws and the Indian Constitution
The Maternity Benefit Act aligns seamlessly with various constitutional provisions aimed at promoting women's rights and social justice. These include the right to equality, social equality, and equal pay for equal work under Articles 14, 15, and 16. Article 39 of the Constitution guarantees sufficient means of livelihood, and Article 42 specifically mandates humane working conditions and maternity relief. The Constitution of India empowers the State to enact special legislation for the benefit of women, as seen in Article 15(3).
Furthermore, Article 21 stipulates right to life and personal liberty. The said right extends beyond physical protection to encompass a broad spectrum of rights. The Maternity Act aligns with Article 21 by safeguarding the health and well-being of pregnant working women, acknowledging the holistic nature of the right to life especially for working women.
The judiciary in India has played a pivotal role in interpreting and shaping the maternity benefit laws. Several notable cases highlight the significance of legal decisions in this context:
Amendments and Progressive Changes
Over the years, the Maternity Benefit Act has undergone amendments to adapt to the evolving needs of society. A significant milestone was reached in 2017 when amendments were introduced to enhance maternity benefits. The duration of paid maternity leave was extended from 12 to 26 weeks, offering ample time for mothers to care for their newborns. This amendment also brought commissioning and adoptive mothers under the purview of maternity benefits.
Moreover, the amendment which was introduced in 2017 introduced a 'work from home' option, empowering women to negotiate terms and conditions with employers after the completion of their paid leave period. Establishments with more than 50 employees were mandated to have an in-house crèche facility providing women the flexibility to use it up to 4 (four) times a day. It is submitted that the mandatory educational initiatives were also introduced to raise awareness about maternity benefits, ensuring that working women who are expecting to become mother get requisite information about their legal rights.
The Maternity Act stands as a cornerstone in ensuring the well-being and rights of working women during pregnancy. Through amendments and legal precedents, its provisions have been strengthened, fostering a more inclusive and supportive work environment. As society progresses towards virtual form, the Maternity Act is bound to face various challenges with this upcoming virtual work environment.
In addition to the above, we must not restrict our focus to maternity leaves and other benefits to women becoming mother, but also to men who are sharing the similarly responsibility in raising the child. In India, paternity leave lacks independent legislation but finds mention in leave rules for government employees, providing 15 days of leave. The move towards recognizing and implementing paternity benefits signifies a step toward dismantling traditional gender roles in childcare. The journey from maternity benefits to potential paternity benefits underscores the ongoing evolution toward a more equitable and inclusive society. However, the distance qua paternity benefits is quite long, and we can hope for the speedy and decisive journey to achieve the end.
In the pursuit of social justice, legislative measures and judicial pronouncements continue to shape the legal landscape, striving for a workplace that respects and upholds the rights of women in every sector of work and business including virtual work platforms.
 §2 of the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961