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Contractual employees are those workers who are hired for a certain amount of time till the project/work gets completed. Maternity benefits are those benefits which are given to women employees to protect their rights during pregnancy and after childbirth. Maternity benefits in India are governed by the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961. However, the provisions of the Act are only applicable to organisations having 10 or more employees, and to the women who have worked for at least 80 days in the 12 months preceding the date of their expected delivery. Women employed on a contractual basis did not find protection within the ambit of the Act and hence, were not entitled to benefits of maternity leave.
Recently, the Himachal Pradesh High Court in the case of Dr. Mandeep Kaur v. Union of India held that contractual employees are also entitled to maternity benefits, along with all consequential benefits, including continuity in service. This article analyses this decision, while discussing the facts of the case and the relevant provisions thereof.
Facts of the Issue
The Petitioner was appointed as a Medical Officer, on a contractual basis under the Respondents. She claimed maternity leave for 180 days with all consequential benefits, including continuity in service, being accorded to her. The Respondents on the other hand, opposed her claim by relying on the contract of employment executed between the parties, wherein no such covenant was present which made her entitled to maternity leave.
The Himachal Pradesh High Court opined in its judgement dated 15th July 2020, that irrespective of the fact that the contract did not contain a covenant with respect to the claim, the Petitioner was entitled to benefits of maternity leave. The court held “Even though, she was engaged on a contractual basis, yet, denial of, benefit of maternity leave to her, would, tantamount, to infringement; being visited, vis-à-vis, the salutary purpose, behind Article 21, of the Constitution of India.” The Court relied on various judgments including Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Female Workers & Anr., which provided an “explicit mandate” vis-à-vis, the entitlement of maternity leave to women employees who are engaged on daily wages. Further, the Court placed reliance on two decisions- Rasitha C H v. State of Kerala and Rakhi v. State of Kerala, both of which held that contractual employees are also entitled to benefits under the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961.
The relevant provisions here are of the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961. Under Section 2 of the Act, mentions all the cases where the Act is applicable. It mentions that the Act applies to factories, mines or plantations including Government owned establishment where people are employed for exhibition of equestrian, acrobatic and other performances. Moreover, it is also applicable to every other shop or establishment within the meaning of any law for the time being in force, which has ten or more employees.
Another provision relevant here is Article 21 of the Constitution of India, which states that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.
The judgment is the right way for securing and empowering working women’s rights in India. The country had passed the Maternity (Amendment) Bill, 2017 that increased the right to paid maternity leave for working women from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, which was the third highest in the world. Although, this was a commendable step taken by the government for working women, it was rather unfortunate that only 1% of all the working women could avail the benefit of this “phantom legislation”. The law was applicable to only those who work in a company with at least 10 employees which is a very miniscule proportion of the small share of India’s working women.
It is estimated that approximately 84% of the women work in companies with less than 10 employees which means they do not reap the benefits of the Act in place. Moreover, women employed on a contractual basis were also not entitled to the maternity leave benefits prior to the judgment. This implies that the majority of the beneficiaries under the Act could not reap benefits of its provisions. However, after this decision passed by the Himachal Pradesh High Court, a much larger percentage of working women in India would be entitled to maternity leave.
Further, the judgment is a breath of fresh air for pregnant women who are employed as they do not only get maternity leave until delivery, but are entitled to consequential benefits including continuity of their jobs. This is beneficial for the women even after childbirth.
The Court rightly upheld that even if a person is engaged on a contractual basis, but is denied the benefit of maternity leave, it would tantamount to the infringement of the right enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution. Irrespective of the nature of their work, all working women are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect at their workplaces and therefore they must be provided with all the facilities for maintaining the same.
If a pregnant lady is forced to work even during the phase where she is carrying a baby in her womb, she may not even be able to perform her work efficiently. While that is one point to make, it is not the most important one here. Maternity leaves are important to be availed by women in order to protect their fundamental right to life. Moreover, the health of the baby she is carrying may also be affected if she is coerced to work during her pregnancy, which again, would tantamount to violation of the right to life of the foetus as well as the Mother by extension. Therefore, it is necessary that all women in the employment sector are given the benefits of maternity leave.
Author: Pranika Goswami from National Law University, Jodhpur.
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India.