Anjali Rajbhar, a 22-year-old woman, was in the fourth month of her pregnancy, when she was suddenly asked to leave by her supervisor at the electronics manufacturing unit in West Delhi’s Mayapuri, in July last year. Rajbhar, a newly-wed from Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh, had worked for under six months at Rs 6,000 a month when she conceived.
“I joined work to ease the pressure off my husband. My husband’s Rs 10,000 was not enough for both of us to live in Delhi. But I had no idea the factory would reject me because I got pregnant. I thought I’d take a few days’ leave to deliver and come back,” Rajbhar says, cradling her son.
The Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Bill, 2016, formalised this month after it was passed by both Houses of Parliament, secures for pregnant women their jobs and, entitles them to paid leave of 26 weeks — an improvement over the previous 12 week-leave policy. The bill, which applies to the organised sector, claims it will benefit around 1.8 million working women. However, it will leave out 90 per cent of the female labour force employed in the unorganised/informal sector.
Hundreds of women like Rajbhar, though employed in the organised sector, end up falling in the grey area of a largely informal labour force with little financial security. Employed through contractors to work in ‘formal’ factory set-ups, they are not direct employees — and thus, cannot avail any benefits guaranteed under the maternity benefit laws. The Maternity Benefits Bill is an ‘amendment’ to the previous Maternity Benefit Act of 1961, which also applied to the organised sector alone. This evident lacuna in the existing Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, was pointed out in a Parliamentary Standing Committee report in 2007, which recommended that the existing law be made universally applicable until the government could bring a separate law to cover women in the unorganised sector. The amended law did not take this recommendation on board.
Meanwhile, Rajbhar’s husband Bablu, is bringing up his baby and paying for his wife’s post natal expenses with his salary from his work at an electronics factory in Hari Nagar.
At the Mayapuri Industrial Area, factory owners claim that their factories are registered and follow required regulations. But in the fluid urban labour market, where labour is cheap and in large supply, pregnant women are fired on flimsy pretexts and not hired back after their delivery.
Devinder Singh, president of the Mayapuri Industrial Association, says, “We are an organised sector and medical expenses of pregnant workers are covered by ESI policies, though I’m not sure about paid leave. We don’t follow the Maternity Bill provisions because the ESI covers women workers.”
The ESI does not insure women workers with paid leave post the birth of a child — it only insures their medical expenses during delivery and post-natal medical complications. So, 24-year-old Suman, now nine months pregnant, has decided to not quit. “I needed the money and I decided to work till I could,” she says, slowly making her way out of the mobile charger factory for lunch.
“Paid leave never even crossed Suman’s or my mind. Forget paid leave, if the supervisor gives Suman her job back, we will be grateful,” says Pankaj, Suman’s husband, who works in a textiles factory nearby.
Some women can get lucky though. Santara Devi, for instance, worked at a factory right till the day before her delivery, five years ago. And, she got her job back after giving birth. Devi puts it to her working amongst a strongly unionised workforce, in her case the Indian Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). Luck can only do so much. After she rejoined work, Devi had to figure out who to keep the baby with. The Maternity Bill, 2016 directs any establishment with 50 or more employees to provide creche facilities for new mothers. Labour and industrial laws also mandate creches. However, not one factory in Mayapuri has a crèche.
Singh says, “There are very few women workers in Mayapuri, that’s why there are no crèches. Also, women are not assigned tough jobs like working on the engineering line or the carpentry segments.”
This line of thinking won’t surprise someone like Savitri Devi, former factory worker and a member of Pragatisheel Mahila Sangathan, a pan-Delhi group of working class women who educate fellow working-class women on gender roles. Devi, 70, says, “Factory owners, or any employer for that matter, do not want liabilities. They only want production. And a lactating mother is a big liability because she is not only slower than her fellow workers, her health and well being are also at stake when she is working.”