Maternity Leave Benefit: Fundamental Right of Women

author Nischala Maruvada , Anirudh Agarwal

calender June 27, 2023

Maternity Leave Benefit: Fundamental Right of Women

Introduction

The Hon’ble High Court of Himachal Pradesh (“High Court”) in the recent matter of State of Himachal Pradesh and Ors. Vs Sita Devi dated June 12, 2023, comprising of Hon’ble Justices Tarlok Singh Chauhan and Virender Singh, strongly condemned the denial of maternity leave benefit to daily wagers, as it’s a violation of women’s constitutional rights. Essentially, the High Court had observed that the object of maternity leave is to protect the dignity of motherhood and to provide social justice to women.

Facts

The issue arose in the backdrop of an instant petition filed against the order of the Himachal Pradesh Administrative Tribunal (“Tribunal”) dated November 21, 2018, whereby the respondent, despite putting in 156 (one hundred fifty-six) days of duty against the minimum requirement of 240 (two hundred forty) days, on account of availing 3 (three) months’ maternity leave, was granted the benefit of deemed maternity leave along with the consequential benefit of conferment of work-charge status upon completion of 8 (eight) years of service. Further, the Tribunal held that since the ailment of the respondent i.e., pregnancy, forced her to be away from her work, her period of maternity leave would be deemed to be continuous service in view of the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, which states that a workman shall be deemed to be in continuous service even if his service was interrupted on account of sickness or authorized leave or accident or strike, etc. which is not due to any fault of such workman. The petitioner pleaded before the High Court to set aside the said order.

Findings and Observations of the High Court

High Court emphasized that India is a signatory to various international covenants and treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, which stipulates that “motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection”. Furthermore, the High Court had observed that the object of maternity leave is to protect the dignity of motherhood and to provide full and healthy maintenance to the woman and her child. Maternity leave is a fundamental human right which intends to achieve social justice for women, motherhood, and childhood. Therefore, in the present case, the High Court held that the respondent was in her advanced stage of pregnancy and could not be compelled to undertake hard labor, as the same would be detrimental to her health and her child’s safety. High Court upholding the order of the Tribunal observed that the period of maternity leave of the respondent was deemed as continuous service, and further stated that the action of the petitioner was violative of the Constitution of India’s Article 29 which protects the interest of minorities and Article 39D which states that health of the worker, irrespective of their gender, will not be abused or manipulated.

Analysis and Conclusion

To become a mother is one of the most natural phenomena in the life of a woman, therefore, the Indian Courts have time and again reiterated through various judgments that for all intents and purposes, women employees are entitled to maternity leave benefits irrespective of the type of employment i.e., regular employee, contractual employee, consultant, or a daily wage worker. In the case of Municipal Corporation of Delhi Vs. Female Workers (Muster Roll) & Anr, the Apex Court held that “the provisions of Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 entitles maternity leave even to women engaged on casual basis or on muster roll as a daily wager but not only for those in regular employment. It is further held that the provisions of the Act in this regard are wholly in consonance with the Directive Principles of the State Policy as contained in Articles 39, 42 and 43 of the Constitution of India”.

To secure and defend the interests of women employees, the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 (“MB Act”) has undergone numerous updates. Maternity benefit is crucial to safeguard women's economic rights, guarantee their employment, and support their societal role of bearing children and raising them. It is pertinent to note that the MB Act applies to all women who are employed in any capacity directly or through any agency. Furthermore, it is imperative that the women employees are apprised about their rights to which they are legally entitled under the MB Act to avoid any future or potential dispute that may arise between an employer and employee.

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