Finally some good news: The Central government has begun to recognise that women workers need adequate maternity protection. Of course, the new measures announced are still quite limited. The ministry of women and child development has decided to increase maternity leave from the current 12 weeks to 26 weeks and extend this to all women workers in both public and private employment. The ministry of labour is to require all establishments with 30 women workers or 50 total workers to provide crèche facilities for their employees, either at the premises or within half a kilometre.
These are definitely welcome measures, apparently a response to low and declining rates of female work participation. India stands out in the world because of shockingly low rates of recognised work participation by women (around 24 per cent) that have even declined over the past decade. This obviously represents a huge economic loss for the country — but it is also a sign of the continuing low status of women and their lack of agency in Indian society.
As it happens, most women in India do indeed work, but they are involved not in paid employment but in unpaid work in their homes or communities. Such work is socially necessary but unsung and unrewarded — everything from cooking and cleaning to looking after the young, the old and the sick, to collecting fuel wood and water for households, to tending gardens and livestock, and so on. Bizarrely, during the recent economic boom in India, official data suggests that more women have moved from paid or recognised employment to doing unpaid work in their households.
There are many factors behind this peculiar tendency. The sheer inadequacy of job creation in the economy makes it hard for women to find suitable jobs. Gender gaps in education also work against them. For less skilled women, available paid jobs tend to be physically arduous and pay much lower wages than for men. The double burden of paid work and unpaid work creates extreme time poverty for working women. So when family incomes improve even slightly (as they did in the previous decade when real wage rates were rising — something that is no longer the case) women may be less inclined to try and do both.
And there are other impediments to women working outside the home: Patriarchal attitudes within families and social restriction on mobility; concerns about commuting time and about security at work and during the commute; and the difficulties of managing domestic responsibilities along with the paid jobs, given the unequal division of household work between men and women within families.
So maternity leave for the actual period of childbirth and the immediate aftermath is only one of the many concerns that working women have — though it is in itself a big one. If the government does succeed in making private employers provide increased maternity leave and in providing crèches at or near workplaces, that will certainly be a step towards somewhat easing the double burden that working mothers face. It would put India (at least legally) in a better position than many other countries like the US, though still far behind more enlightened countries in northern and eastern Europe as well as Central Asia. Some countries like Canada and Australia even provide a year of parental leave, which can be shared between parents.
But Indian working women would be in a better position only if these laws are actually implemented. Unfortunately, most labour laws in India are honoured only in the breach, and there is little or no serious attempt to enforce them, especially among private employers. Indeed, concerns have already been voiced that such laws and rules will only prevent employers from hiring women, or push more women workers into informal contracts where their rights are
In any case, at the moment, only around 10 per cent of the 60 million or so women in India who are recognised as workers have jobs in the organised sector. And even many of those have informal contracts, with little or no social protection. Most of the millions of women working in the unorganised sector, as regular workers in small establishments or in domestic work or as casual workers earning daily wages or as self-employed workers, currently do not get any kind of paid maternal leave.
So this is still just a tiny step towards the larger goals of improving women’s participation in paid work and increasing their economic empowerment. To make a real difference, public intervention has to be wider and more ambitious.
It has to address the huge issue of unpaid work, by taking measures to recognise it (for example through systematic and regular time-use surveys that capture people’s activities); to reduce it (by providing more goods and services that will mitigate the need for such work, such as the provision of basic amenities like piped fuel and water and better quality and affordable healthcare and education services); and to redistribute it both between households and society and within households across males and females. It has to deal with concerns about women’s security in public places and workplaces.
It has to focus on education that reduces the number of female dropouts and improves quality. It has to work towards reducing the huge gender gaps in wages in most activities. Without serious attempts on all these fronts and on enforcement, these newly declared measures will seem like tokenism.