New Delhi: The government is planning to not only more than double the maternity leave for all working women to 26 weeks but also introduce an option to work from home for up to two years under the Maternity Benefit Act.
Once legislated, the amendments will be applicable to the private sector as well.
In a cabinet note, the labour ministry has proposed the changes to the Maternity Benefits Act, which now entitles women to 12 weeks of maternity benefit during which employers have to pay full wages.
The labour ministry has said that over and above the proposed mandatory leave of 26 weeks or six-and-a-half months, women should be able to negotiate to work from home for up to two years after completion of the leave.
"This tenure has to be mutually agreeable. It is an option that the employer and employee can look at. We suggested this for lactating mothers who would want to breastfeed their infants.
"Also, the first two years of a child's life with a mother is very important. So, we want companies to be flexible in this regard," said an official of the labour ministry.
Sources in the ministry said employers would be encouraged to include the work-from-home option in job contracts so that there was no confusion when the woman wanted to activate the option.
In September, it was reported that the women and child development ministry was pushing for 32 weeks' or eight months' mandatory maternity leave. But the labour ministry was in favour of six-and-a-half months as it fears that more leave might deter companies from hiring women.
The labour ministry, the nodal ministry for the law, has now stuck to the 26-week suggestion in the cabinet proposal, which is expected to be signed tomorrow by the labour minister and circulated for inter-ministerial consultations.
Once the other ministries send in their comments, the amendments will be presented to the cabinet for consideration. The women and child development ministry, headed by Maneka Gandhi, is expected to make another push for the 32-week leave proposal.
Maternity leave is now restricted to three months in most of the private sector. But, under an order in 2008, central government employees are eligible to take six months' maternity leave.
"While I think that it is a good idea to give women more maternity leave, I am not sure if these benefits percolate down to the woman who is working in a factory or a woman who works at a construction site," said Snigdha Sinha, an IT professional working in Delhi, who has just returned to work after three months of maternity leave.
"It is a joy to stay on with your child for some more months, but the concern is that there might be a price to pay for the joy. I am concerned that such a move will deter companies from hiring women. As a professional, I also do not understand how a serious professional in the private sector can continue to be good at her job after being on leave for more than six months. Here, equations change in days," she laughed.
The ministry is also seeking to make it mandatory for companies employing more than 50 personnel to have a crèche within a radius of 1km to enable mothers to visit their infants regularly and easily.
"There will be an option for crèche pooling. Offices in close vicinity can come together and have one crèche for their employees. This will be applicable to only those that don't have too many women employees.
"However, in case of pooling, companies should make sure that the distance between each office and the crèche is not more than a kilometre," the official said.