MATERNITY leave means the period of paid absence from work. Maternity leave may be termed as a period of approved absence for a female worker granted for the purpose of giving birth and taking care of newborn child. Such type of leave is allowed to a mother before and after the birth of a child. Usually, the term maternity benefit is applied in case of working women. It indicates the payment made to a woman for giving birth of a child. All sorts of costs associated with maternity care may be treated as maternity benefit.
It is evident that, the Participation of women is prominent in the Ready Made Garment (RMG) sector of Bangladesh and with the change of time it is increasing in all other sectors of the society. It may be said that women participation in the economic development of the country is of two-fold. Firstly, women are working in RMG sectors and in factories as worker under the Labour Law 2006 and secondly on the other hand a large number of women are working in banks particularly in private banks, in different private and public organizations and in other sectors of the society.
Here, a major difference is that the first group is not literally educated and the second one is highly accomplished under the existing system. The way of working, working environment, remuneration package etc are totally different between these two groups of women but when the question of maternity benefit comes in the light both groups stand on the same footing. It is true that public sector women workers get better benefit than that of private sector, still for all sectors, the maternity benefit of working women is a privilege, not a right.
The maternity leave policy for women in Bangladesh is 16 weeks with full payment. However, recently the Government has declared that it should be increased to six months.
The Law on maternity benefit in Bangladesh is regulated by the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 under Chapter IV called Maternity Benefit. Before the enactment of the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 there were three distinct Acts relating to maternity benefits for women for a specific period before and after the birth of child and for the payment during that period. The Acts were The Maternity Benefit Act 1939, The Mines Maternity Benefit Act 1941 and The Maternity Benefits (Tea Estate) Act 1950. All these Acts have been repealed and amalgamated in the new Labour Code 2006.
The Maternity Benefits provided under the Labour Act 2006 is for the workers and the definition of worker as provided in Chapter I, section 2 (LXV) clearly excludes the women who are working at the management level. Unfortunately, there exist no specific laws for management level (women) workers. Other than women workers at public services, the leave period that is granted to management level women workers is at the discretion of the concern organizations. As there is no legal barrier on the part of the employers, employees (women) are left at their mercy. Though employee voice is an essential element in the modern employment policy, there is hardly any scope of women to raise voice in the necessary four dimensions i.e. of free speech rights, participation in decision making, consultation and social dialogue.
In our male dominated society maternity benefit is still considered as a women issue and generally taken as a special benefit awarded to women. Again, there is discrimination or inconsistencies between the Labour Act 2006 and the amended Bangladesh Service Rules. The Amended
Rule 197(1) of Part-I of the Bangladesh Service Rules provides for permanent government servants the right to take six months' maternity leave and the Bangladesh Labour Act provides a worker with the right to take 16 weeks maternity leave. And the women working in private sectors are totally ignored.
It is a well-established fact that maternity leave benefits increase the chances of women to get back to their work and plays a significant role to increase organizational loyalty, efficiency and job satisfaction. When a women is engaged in economic activities i.e. when a women is earning only then it is possible for the entire society to move forward. Without economic independence a woman cannot expect respect of the family members or in the broad sense of the society. And to allow women to continue to work maternity benefits must be ensured.
In the English medium schools, particularly in the junior sections most of the teachers are female. For example, in Oxford International School, the junior section of the dhanmondi branch is completely and effectively run by female teachers. Women are capable enough and for this they are working dominantly. But a report of the daily New Age reveals that in many occasion the teachers of such type of schools are left with no option but to leave the job on maternity ground. A survey of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (2010) on Ready Made Garments (RMG) and construction industries showed that in many cases maternity leave provisions are not properly implemented and on many occasion it is allowed without pay.
One of the basic causes of deprivation of women regarding maternity benefits is the weakness of relevant Acts and lack of enforcement of the existing laws. A mother is a mother. It is immaterial for an infant whether its mother comes within the definition of worker or not. The needs of a mother do not vary by the types of work she does. Proper implementation of the existing laws and increase of facilities for private sector working women must be ensured by the Government. Maternity benefits should no longer be treated as a privilege but a right of women.
The writer is Assistant Professor of Law, Northern University Bangladesh.