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Delhi High Court Affirms Maternity Benefits for DSLSA Empanelled Advocates

Title:  Annwesha Deb v. Delhi State Legal Services Authority
Decided on:  26th July, 2023

+  W.P.(C) 11016/2017 & CM APPL. 2071/2022

CORAM: HON’BLE MR. JUSTICE CHANDRA DHARI SINGH

Introduction

The Delhi High Court has ruled that female advocates empanelled with the Delhi State Legal Services Authority (DSLSA) are entitled to maternity benefits under the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961. The court emphasized the importance of allowing women to balance both their careers and motherhood without being forced to choose between the two.

Facts

The court addressed a writ petition filed by a female advocate empanelled with DSLSA. She sought directions to grant her consecutive maternity benefits similar to those provided to regular female employees.

Analysis

Justice Chandra Dhari Singh, presiding over a Single Bench, highlighted that maternity benefits are not solely a statutory or contractual entitlement between employer and employee. Instead, they are integral to a woman’s identity and dignity when she decides to start a family. The court underlined that the liberty to become a mother is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. The environment should support a woman’s ability to make decisions about her personal and professional life, ensuring that women who choose both a career and motherhood are not forced into a difficult “either-or” situation.

The court emphasized that obstructing a woman’s exercise of this right without proper legal procedure is not only against the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution but also violates the core principles of social justice.

Key Points

The petitioner was appointed as a legal aid counsel on a daily fee basis by the Juvenile Justice Board-I in New Delhi. During her contractual period, she became pregnant and applied for seven months of maternity leave in October 2017.

The petitioner’s request for maternity benefits was denied by DSLSA, stating that such benefits were not provided for legal services authorities. Dissatisfied with the decision, the petitioner approached the court seeking remedy.

The court highlighted the historical struggle women faced in achieving equal treatment in both skilled and unskilled work, stressing the importance of understanding that equal treatment doesn’t always mean identical treatment.

The court noted that the changes a woman undergoes during pregnancy go beyond just biological aspects, and accommodating her needs is essential. Pushing pregnant women to work on par with others can result in grave injustice and violate the principles of equity and equality envisaged by the Constitution.

The court rejected the argument that the petitioner’s relationship with DSLSA was that of a client and advocate, emphasizing that the nature of payment didn’t negate the employer-employee relationship.

The court ruled that the petitioner’s case falls within the definition of wages under the Maternity Benefit Act and that the Act’s intent was not to limit relief based on the nature of employment.

The court criticized DSLSA’s denial of maternity benefits to contractual employees despite extending these benefits to regular employees.

Emphasizing that maternity benefits are essential for the well-being of both mother and child, the court called for a change in perspective to ensure women can balance family and career.

The court concluded that withholding maternity benefits violates both constitutional rights and the spirit of social justice. It urged the state and all subjects of the Act to uphold its provisions and objectives.

Held

The Delhi High Court’s decision to uphold maternity benefits for female advocates empanelled with DSLSA is a step toward gender equality and women’s empowerment. The ruling emphasizes the importance of recognizing the fundamental rights of women to balance career and motherhood without being compelled to make a difficult choice.

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Written by- Ankit Kaushik

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Examining the Scope and Coverage of the Maternity Benefit Act: Implications for Women in the Workforce

Introduction:

The Maternity Benefit Act is a pivotal legislation aimed at safeguarding the rights and well-being of working women during pregnancy and motherhood. Enacted to promote gender equality and provide adequate support to pregnant employees, the Act has played a significant role in ensuring maternal protection in the workplace. This article aims to analyze the key provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act, assess its impact on working women, and explore measures to ensure adequate maternal protection in the workplace.

  1. Provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act:

The Maternity Benefit Act, enacted in 1961 and subsequently amended, outlines crucial provisions that protect the rights of pregnant employees. It mandates employers to provide eligible employees with paid maternity leave of up to 26 weeks, including a pre-delivery leave period. The Act also guarantees maternity benefits, such as medical allowances, nursing breaks, and protection against dismissal during pregnancy. Furthermore, it prohibits employers from assigning physically strenuous work to pregnant employees and promotes a safe and healthy work environment during pregnancy and postpartum.

Impact on Working Women:

The Maternity Benefit Act has had a significant impact on working women, promoting their rights, well-being, and overall empowerment in the following ways:

  1. Financial Security: The Act ensures financial security for working women during maternity by providing them with paid maternity leave. This provision alleviates concerns about income loss during pregnancy and allows women to focus on their health and the well-being of their newborns without financial stress. The availability of paid maternity leave enables working women to maintain their economic stability and reduces the risk of women leaving the workforce due to financial constraints.

  1. Health and Well-being: The Act recognizes the importance of maintaining the health and well-being of pregnant employees. It mandates employers to provide medical allowances and nursing breaks, enabling women to prioritize their health needs, attend prenatal check-ups, and ensure the well-being of their unborn child. These provisions contribute to the overall health and safety of pregnant employees, reducing the risks associated with inadequate prenatal care and strenuous work activities during pregnancy.

  1. Protection against Discrimination: The Act prohibits the termination of employment on the grounds of pregnancy or maternity leave. This provision offers protection to working women against discrimination, ensuring job security and stability during and after pregnancy. It empowers pregnant employees to assert their rights and seek legal remedies in case of violations, fostering a more inclusive and equitable work environment.

  1. Work-Life Balance: The availability of maternity leave under the Act allows working women to achieve a better work-life balance. It provides them with the necessary time to recover from childbirth, establish breastfeeding routines, and bond with their new-borns. This support enables women to fulfil their maternal responsibilities while maintaining their careers, thus reducing the burden of juggling professional and personal commitments.
  2. Promotion of Gender Equality: The Maternity Benefit Act plays a crucial role in promoting gender equality in the workplace. By providing specific benefits and protections to pregnant employees, it recognizes and addresses the unique challenges faced by women during pregnancy and motherhood. This acknowledgment contributes to creating a more inclusive and supportive work environment, fostering gender equality and paving the way for women’s increased participation and advancement in the workforce.
  3. Positive Societal Impact: The Act’s impact extends beyond individual women and has broader societal implications. By ensuring adequate support and protection for working women during maternity, it helps to challenge societal stereotypes and norms related to women’s roles and responsibilities. It sends a strong message that pregnancy and motherhood should not be barriers to women’s career progression and that women should have equal opportunities to succeed in the workplace.

Summing up, the Maternity Benefit Act has had a transformative impact on working women by providing them with financial security, promoting their health and well-being, protecting them against discrimination, facilitating work-life balance, fostering gender equality, and creating positive societal change. It recognizes the importance of supporting women’s reproductive choices and ensuring that they can thrive both personally and professionally.

However, due to lack of awareness of the provisions and failure to learn the benefits the act offers has led to lot of implementational challenges of the act. A study was conducted to examine the awareness of employers about the recent amended provisions of the maternity benefit act and the data is as follows:

Awareness about MBA(Principal) Act, 1961 and MBA(Amendment) Act, 2017

 

A study was conducted to examine the awareness of employers about the recent amended provisions of the maternity benefit act and the data is as follows:

Awareness about the maternity Benefit Act, 1961

Sl. No Response Response percentage
1 Yes 75
2 No 25
  Total 100

Awareness about the Maternity Benefit Act, 2017

Sl. No Response Response percentage
1. Yes 58.3
2. No 41.7
  Total 100

Data from Impact of the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 in the it /ites Industry

Data of table 1 reflects that approximately 75% of employers are aware about Maternity Benefit Act (Principal) 1961, but as shown in table 2 only 58.3% employers are aware about its amendment. Even in terms of this awareness, while there may be awareness about the increased leave for maternity, there was little awareness on the other provisions concerning crèche facilities. This data clearly indicates the failed attempt of the Government to acquaint the employers about the amended act. Lack of awareness about the provisions of the act may lead to improper implementation of it.

Can a female employee work from home while on her maternity leave?

 

Under the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, there are provisions that address the concept of work from home or remote work during the period of maternity. While the Act does not explicitly mention work from home as a specific provision, it does allow for certain flexibility and accommodations to be made for pregnant employees.

  1. Temporary Transfer or Change of Work: The Act states that if a pregnant woman is unable to perform her regular duties due to the nature of her work and the condition of her pregnancy, the employer should, if possible, offer her alternative work on the same terms and conditions. This provision can be interpreted to include the possibility of working from home or remotely during the maternity period.
  2. Nursing Breaks: The Act mandates that employers provide nursing breaks to nursing mothers for a specified duration during the day. These breaks allow mothers to feed their infants or express breast milk. In the context of remote work, nursing breaks can be accommodated by providing mothers with flexible scheduling options that allow them to attend to their maternal responsibilities while working from home.
  3. Flexibility and Remote Work Policies: While not specifically mandated by the Maternity Benefit Act, employers can adopt flexible work policies that include work-from-home arrangements for pregnant employees. Many organizations, recognizing the benefits of remote work for work-life balance and employee well-being, have implemented policies that allow pregnant employees to continue their work responsibilities from the comfort of their homes during the maternity period.

However, it is pertinent to note that the provisions for work from home or remote work during maternity under the Maternity Benefit Act may vary in practice and depend on the specific arrangements made between the employer and the pregnant employee. Employers should ensure that they adhere to the provisions of the Act and consider the individual needs and circumstances of pregnant employees when making work-from-home arrangements.

Challenges and Measures for Adequate Maternal Protection:

While the Maternity Benefit Act has been instrumental in ensuring maternal protection in the workplace, certain challenges remain. One key challenge is the lack of awareness and compliance among employers. Some employers may not fully understand their obligations under the Act, leading to non-compliance and denial of maternity benefits. Addressing this issue requires increased awareness campaigns and training programs to educate employers about their responsibilities.

Moreover, the Maternity Benefit Act, 2017 does not specifically address the eligibility of freelance workers for maternity benefits. The Act primarily applies to employees working in establishments that employ 10 or more individuals.

Freelance workers, being self-employed, are not considered employees in the traditional sense and are not covered under the provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act. They do not have an employer-employee relationship and are responsible for managing their own work and benefits. To help these workers, Government can consider amending the existing labour laws or enacting new legislation specifically addressing the rights and benefits of freelance workers. This could include provisions for maternity benefits, such as maternity leave, medical coverage etc. It could also explore the possibility of creating social security schemes that allow freelance workers to contribute to a fund that provides maternity benefits and other social security benefits. Such schemes could be managed by government agencies or independent organizations.

Additionally, the Act primarily focuses on formal employment relationships, leaving gig workers, self-employed individuals, and those engaged in the informal sector without adequate maternity benefits. To ensure comprehensive maternal protection, it is crucial to extend the Act’s coverage to encompass these workers and provide them with similar rights and benefits.

Furthermore, given the evolving needs of working women, there is a need to expand the Act to address emerging concerns, such as mental health support during pregnancy and postpartum, flexible work arrangements, and provisions for fathers and adoptive parents. These measures would contribute to a more inclusive and supportive work environment for pregnant employees.

Does maternity benefit act apply to contractual employees?

The maternity benefit act covers all women who are employed, whether on a permanent, temporary, or contractual basis.

According to the Act, a woman employee is eligible for maternity benefits if she has worked for her employer for at least 80 days in the 12 months preceding her expected delivery date. This eligibility criterion applies to all employees, including contractual workers. If the employee meets this criterion, she is entitled to avail maternity leave and other benefits as per the provisions of the Act.

Rasitha C.H. Vs State of Kerala & Anr

WP(C).No. 5507 of 2018

The Kerala High Court recently reiterated that women-employees are entitled to maternity leave, regardless of whether their employment is contractual or otherwise.

Allowing a petition filed by 35-year old Rasitha, who was denied maternity leave by the Calicut University on the ground that the terms of her contract did not envision the grant of such leave, Justice A Muhamed Mustaq held,

“The maternity benefit is not merely a statutory benefit or a benefit flowing out of an agreement. This court consistently held that it is attached with the dignity of a woman…. it was held that a woman employee cannot be denied maternity benefits merely because her status is a contractual employee. Therefore, the University is bound to grant such benefits notwithstanding anything contained in the agreement of contract.”

In view of these observations, the Court allowed Rasitha’s plea and directed the Calicut University to pay maternity benefits due to the Rasitha, as applicable in the case of other employees of the University, within two months.

Case Laws

Dr. Rachna Chaurasiya Vs. State of U.P. and others passed

Civil Misc. Writ Petition No.24627 of 2017.

The division Bench of the Allahabad High Court directed the State Government to grant maternity leave to all female with full pay of 180 days, irrespective of nature of employment, i.e., permanent, temporary/ad hoc or contractual basis. State respondent was further directed to grant Child Care Leave of 730 days to all female employees, who are appointed on regular basis, contractual basis, ad hoc or temporary basis having minor children with the rider that the child should not be more than 18 years of age or older.

 

  1. Ishwarya Vs. Director of Medical Education, Directorate of Medical Education and OthersW.P. No.12660 of 2017

The Madras High Court decided and had also dealt with in great detail the theory of motherhood. It is held in the aforesaid judgement that maternity leave cannot be denied and the period of maternity leave should not be kept apart or executed from service and maternity leave excluded from the period of service is “null and void”.

Conclusion:

The Maternity Benefit Act stands as a significant milestone in ensuring adequate maternal protection in the workplace. Its provisions have positively impacted the lives of working women by guaranteeing paid maternity leave, benefits, and protection against discrimination. However, challenges persist, including lack of employer compliance and gaps in coverage for certain categories of workers. To ensure comprehensive maternal protection, it is essential to address these challenges through awareness initiatives, extending coverage to all workers, and incorporating provisions that align with emerging needs. By doing so, we can continue to foster a workplace environment that prioritizes the well-being and rights of pregnant employees, ultimately promoting gender equality and societal progress.

References

Case Laws

  1. Rasitha C.H. Vs State of Kerala & Anr (WP(C).No. 5507 of 2018)
  2. Rachna Chaurasiya Vs. State of U.P. and others(Civil Misc. Writ Petition No.24627 of 2017.)
  3. Ishwarya Vs. Director of Medical Education, Directorate of Medical Education and Others(W.P. No.12660 of 2017)

Websites

  • Impact of maternity benefit act-https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/IJLMA-06-2022-0129/full/html?skipTracking=true

Article written by Amit Aravind

“PRIME LEGAL is a full-service law firm that has won a National Award and has more than 20 years of experience in an array of sectors and practice areas. Prime legal fall into a category of best law firm, best lawyer, best family lawyer, best divorce lawyer, best divorce law firm, best criminal lawyer, best criminal law firm, best consumer lawyer, best civil lawyer.”