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Work from Home and Maternity Benefit: Is there a need for reform?

By Nevin Clinton

Maternity is a hugely important period in a woman’s life and hence, priority in the said period must be on providing the best care for mother and child. Everything else including work must take a back seat. Therefore, to recognize and respect this period of maternity and to ensure that every working woman’s rights are safeguarded, the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 came into force.

Key provisions of the Act

The act entitles every working woman to leave with full pay and benefits for up to 26 weeks. This applies to all establishments where there are 10 or more employees. The condition is that the woman must have worked for at least 80 days in the preceding 12 months. While availing these maternity benefits, the woman’s service cannot be terminated by the employer because of the pregnancy (there can be termination due to poor conduct and the like). 

Now, the Maternity Benefit Act has been amended from time to time to incorporate provisions in accordance with the changing times. One such key amendment was made in 2017 which brought in some important changes such as extending the maternity leave period from 12 to 26 weeks. There are also other provisions that were brought in for an increased period of leave in cases of miscarrige or termination of pregnancy.

Among these changes, one other important inclusion was that of provisions for ‘work from home’.

The emergence of work from home

Working from home has been a relatively new concept or idea that emerged thanks to the advent of computerisation of a plethora of work done in jobs. Despite the fact that the same could get monotonous, working from home has emerged as a viable option for people looking for light work. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the concept came into the mainstream with nearly every establishment going for it. 

Work from home and maternity benefit

In the context of maternity benefits, work from home was a novel concept in India and there was on official recognition of the same. However, the 2017 amendment in what was a welcome change, brought in the option of employers providing for mothers to work from home for an extended period after delivery, ‘if the nature of work allows so’. 

Is there room for reform?

Now, the option or the very concept of work from home for mothers is pioneering, yes. Mothers in the past did not have such a possibility and even their maternity leave period was far lesser. Therefore, the changes in recent times have been extremely promising and there is no denying that.

But, there is still some scope for reform, especially with regard to the work from home provisions. This is because the complete discretion to make the option available to the women concerned lies with the employer. There is no say for the women. The employer can very well not provide the option stating that the nature of work does ot allow so (even if it in fact allows so). 

Therefore, employers must be made aware of the existence of the ‘work from home’ provisions and advised to make it available wherever possible. Legislation could be a solution to ensure that the option is not denied, but the problem in such a situation would lie in ascertaining an objective way to determine when the nature of work is in such a way for the option to be exercised. 

Classification of various jobs in every establishment as to whether ‘work from home’ would be possible would be a good solution as well, if made mandatory. This can help in the discretion of making use of the option shifting to the employees to an extent, albeit not fully (since the employers will have a say in the said classification of jobs, if done).

Conclusion

The Maternity Benefit Act in India does not have a lot of controversial or contentious provisions. In fact, the Act has been recognized as a progressive one by other countries. Recent amendments have also been encouraging. Therefore, with a few crucial amendments from time to time, India can go a long way in making sure that its maternity benefit legislation is near-perfect.