When Reema Paul (name changed) switched jobs, lured by a better salary and brighter prospects, she happily signed the contract that set down certain terms and conditions for her first year at the Kolkata branch of one of India’s top electronic chain of stores. It was a mere formality, she thought. Little did she know that soon she would be on her way out, not because her work had been found unsatisfactory or because she had been guilty of some grave misconduct, but simply because she had ‘dared’ to get pregnant.
“My contract stated that I would not be allowed any leave for the first year,” recounts Reema, “but how was I to imagine that I would be penalised for my pregnancy? I always thought that women employees in the organised sector were entitled to maternity leave.” Obviously, she had thought wrong. When a heavily pregnant Reema applied for leave, she was asked to hand in her resignation letter.
Mothers and motherhood have traditionally and, often patronisingly, been glorified in our country although employers clearly do not share this attitude. Despite the promises of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, pregnant working women continue to get a raw deal.
Over two decades ago, in 1991, the Supreme Court had ruled in favour of pregnant employees in the celebrated Neera Mathur Vs Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) case. Ms. Mathur had been appointed by the LIC on September 25, 1989. She was put on probation for six months and was to be confirmed, subject to a satisfactory work report. She applied for maternity leave on December 27, 1989. On February 13, 1990, she was discharged from service during her period of probation. The reason cited for termination was that she had deliberately withheld the fact of being pregnant at the time of filling up a declaration form prior to being appointed.
When Ms. Mathur moved court, the Supreme Court directed LIC to reinstate her. Furthermore, on perusing the aforementioned declaration form, the Court was shocked to note that it required women candidates to provide information about the dates of their menstrual cycles and past pregnancies. The Court considered this to be an invasion of privacy of a person and violative of Article 21, which guarantees right to life and privacy. It, therefore, directed the LIC also to delete those columns from its future questionnaires.
Last year, newspapers reported the case of Indrani Chakraverty, who had been working for a Delhi design firm for some years. Suddenly, in August 2009, when she was expecting her first child, she was told over the phone that she had been sacked. She filed a criminal case against the company for violating the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, and on July 26 last year she won Rs 7.5 lakh as settlement money from the company on orders from the Delhi High Court.
While Neera and Indrani were able to file cases against their employers, not many women can take their fight to the courts. Reema couldn’t. “I did not hand in my resignation,” she says, “but I never went back, because they made it amply clear that they would not have me back.” She admits that perhaps things would have been different if she had approached the office of the Labour Commissioner, as her trade unionist father had suggested. However, companies bank on the fact that a young woman, who has delivered her first baby, and whose in-laws may not be terribly keen on her going back to work immediately after, will be too stressed out to challenge her employers with legal action.
When Reema’s employers were contacted to enquire about their policy towards pregnant employees, and about the treatment meted out to Reema, they simply stated that Reema had never been an employee. “I have my contract and other proofs,” Reema says, with a wry smile.
Says Kolkata High Court lawyer Mayukhmoy Adhikari, “In no civilised nation can a woman be asked to resign from her job or be terminated because she is pregnant. In such case, she should immediately file a complaint with the police, write to the Women’s Commission and then take legal action. The trick is to never resign from your job even if asked to do so, and to make sure that you formally report for work after your maternity leave is over. If the company then terminates you or transfers you to a difficult location or post, you can either take the matter up with the Labour Commissioner or go straight to court. The law is on your side.”
Be that as it may, lived experiences reveal the grim reality that maternity still pushes hundreds of women out of employment, with them being most vulnerable in sectors where the rate of unionisation is nil or very low. (Women's Feature Service)