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Working women and their benefits

Maternity benefits under the Code on Social Security must be made universal, says ALOK RAY.

ALOK RAY | New Delhi |

Social security without appropriate maternity benefits for all working women – whether daily wagers in a brick kiln or in agriculture or in other unorganized sectors or as manual scavengers – will remain an incomplete scheme for crores of women who are foot soldiers of development.

During the postCovid period, this requirement is a national urgency. The total number of female workers in rural and urban areas is around 122 and 30 million respectively.

Not more than 10 per cent of them are in the organized sector. The Maternity Benefits Act, 1961 is a social welfare legislation and women working in factories, plantations, mines, circuses, industries and shops or establishments employing 10 or more people except employees covered under the Employees State Insurance Act, 1948, are entitled for certain statutory benefits.

The ESI Act is applicable to an establishment having 10 or more employees.

The Maternity Benefits Act was amended in 2017 to raise the paid leave benefit period to 26 weeks for up to two surviving children and a medical bonus of Rs 3,500 was also provided. Benefits of 12 weeks’ paid leave are available for miscarriage or medical termination of pregnancy also. There are other benefits including provision for safe and light work.

A woman is entitled to these benefits only after working not less than 80 days in the 12 months immediately preceding her delivery. A new Section 11A was inserted to provide facility of crèche in every establishment having fifty or more employees. Now the provisions of this legislation have been included in Chapter VI of the Code on Social Security, 2020 and the 1961 Act has been repealed by the Code.

The Union Government is considering implementation of four labour Codes with effect from 1 April 2021. In the Code and in notified draft Rules of the Code on Social Security, it has been provided that in every establishment where fifty or more women employees are ordinarily employed, a creche will be provided and maintained for the use of children under the age of six. As in the Code on Industrial Relations, the Code on Social Security has also provided that employees who are in ‘fixed term employment’ shall be entitled to same wages, allowances and other benefits as available to the permanent employees.

This is a welcome improvement and women employees would be benefitted during maternity period as income security and other benefits are guaranteed. In this context, the provisions of Section 70 of the Code on Social Security should be reviewed at an appropriate time.

It provides for forfeiture of maternity benefit in a situation where a woman who works for remuneration during the period she has been permitted by an employer to absent herself for availing maternity benefits.

The Rules should have prescribed medical advice to decide whether it is safe to permit the woman to continue her work or to avail the benefit and take rest.

The Code on Social Security has been enacted with a goal to extend Social Security to all employees and workers in the organized, unorganized or any other sector.

Under Section 2(78) of the New Code, Social Security includes protection afforded to unorganized workers, gig workers and platform workers to ensure access to health care and to provide income security in case of maternity.

Under the Code, Unorganized Sector means an enterprise owned by individuals or self-employed workers and engaged in the production or sale of goods or providing service of any kind and when the enterprise employs less than 10 workers. But the ambit of definition of unorganized worker is much wider.

An unorganized worker means a home-based worker, a self-employed worker or a wage worker in the unorganized sector and includes a worker in the organized sector who is not covered by the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 or Chapter III to VII of the Code.

A gig worker means a person who performs or participates in a work arrangement and earns from such activities outside of traditional employer-employee relationship. A platform worker means a work arrangement outside of the traditional employer-employee relationship in which organisations or individuals use an online platform to access other organisations or individuals to solve specific problems or to provide specific services. Chapter IX of the Code provides Social Security for unorganized workers, gig workers, and platform workers.

The Code has empowered the Central Government to frame and notify suitable welfare schemes for unorganized workers, gig workers and platform workers on matters including health and maternity benefits.

The State Unorganized Workers Board has also been empowered to recommend welfare schemes. Details of funding and scope of the schemes have also been prescribed in the Code. Every such worker is required to register either electronically or otherwise to avail the benefits.

PM Matru Vandana Yojna (PMMVY) is a much-publicised scheme to provide compensation to women workers in unorganized sectors for wage losses in terms of cash incentives so that the woman can take adequate rest before and after delivery of the first living child.

This scheme was envisioned to implement the National Food Security Act, 2013. Under PMMVY, the provision of Rs.6000 in three instalments as a maternity entitlement for all expecting mothers not covered in the 1961 Act has the mission to create an enabling environment for motherhood.

However, without at least the minimum wage for a period of 26 weeks, how can there be any justice to majority of mothers and their newborn babies? Presently this scheme of Rs 5000 (came into effect from 1.1.2017) and then Rs 1000 under the Janani Suraksha Yojana is also not universal in reality and lengthy documentation is apparently cumbersome.

This is not income security as mentioned in the Code. Single women and victims of child marriage have been impliedly excluded from this scheme. Many State Governments have various schemes but none of these are comparable to the benefits available in the organized sectors.

Pradhan Mantri Surakshit Matritva Abhiyan is a commendable scheme to provide timely and quality antenatal care, free of cost universally to all pregnant women and can complement the Maternity Benefits scheme under the new Code. There is a provision for social security fund in Chapter III of the Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions, 2020 for welfare of the unorganized workers and amount of this fund can be transferred to any fund established under any other law for their welfare.

The responsibility is on the Central Government to frame a universal maternity benefit scheme to ensure better health care and a guaranteed income security during pregnancy and thereafter, as there is no job security in these sectors. Since most of these women workers in unorganized sectors are engaged in manual arduous work, they need more rest and better nutrition.

Considering their financial vulnerability, the Social security scheme should provide comprehensive social security umbrella so that births can take place with peace of mind.

The writer is a labour law expert and author.