Women Can Opt for WFH Under Maternity Benefit Act Only If Their Nature of Work Allows It: Karnataka HC
Mothers of newborn babies can avail work-from-home options once their maternity leave is up. However, women whose nature of work is such they can’t feasibly work from home, may not be able to exercise the option, the Karnataka High Court ruled this month.
The court also directed employers to exercise sympathy towards mothers of newborns and not pit women against each other in the context of motherhood, which may serve as a small step in dispelling the biases and discrimination mothers have to face routinely at workplaces. However, in terms of the ruling, the judgment stuck to the letter of the law.
The court was ruling on the petition by Prachi Sen, a Senior Executive Engineer at the Semi-Conductor Technology and Applied Research Centre (STARC) — under the aegis of the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), and by extension, India’s defense ministry — who didn’t return to work after her maternity leave was over. Instead of returning to work physically, Sen sought to work from home; this was in accordance with an advisory issued by the central government last June, which urged all states and union territories to allow female employees to work from home once they got back from their respective maternity leaves.
The letter by the labor ministry allows women to avail work-from-home options till the baby is one year old — so, at the very least, for six more months after their maternity leaves end. “Apart from Covid19, giving the flexibility to work from home wherever nature of work allows [doing] so, shall enable nursing mothers to continue to remain in employment, thus [the] implementation of this provision shall act as an enabling tool in enhancement of participation of women in [the] labor force,” the letter stated.
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The advisory, however, relies on Section 5(5) of the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017, which also states that the nature of the work of the woman availing the benefit must be such that it can be performed remotely. Moreover, before shifting to a work-from-home arrangement, the employee and the employer must reach a consensus on what it would look like.
In Sen’s case, the latter wasn’t done. Regarding the former, her employers argued that her nature of work doesn’t actually make working from home feasible since the research she performs for the organization is “both sensitive as well as complicated… [and] the research is for the benefit of the [government] which uses the facility in the defense fields and the research work will not be divulged to the public.”
Arguing that Sen will need to report to the office, her employers argued that not all organizations can provide the maternity benefits employees of the central government enjoy. They did, however, undertake to make crèche facilities available for her in premises adjacent to the office. They noted that if other female employees seek similar facilities, the organization will start the process of obtaining financial sanctions to construct one on its own premises. Effectively, they denied Sen the option to work from home.
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As such, Justice R. Devdas, who was hearing the matter, ruled that Sen would have to return to office should she want to resume working with the organization. But he added, “[T]his court cannot lose sight of the fact that during the period of delivery and post-delivery, there were two serious waves of Covid19 pandemic [and then] a third-wave… Therefore, if the petitioner was unable to join duties, the [organization] is required to have [a] sympathetic view towards [her].”
Moreover, when the employers attempted to compare Sen with another female employee who returned to work after her maternity leave was up, Justice Devdas remarked, “The difficulties of the mother may be different in each case, and therefore, everything would depend on the facts and circumstances of each case… in such cases, parity cannot be drawn,” the judgment noted.
The position of the court, here, was an endeavor to balance the interests of the petitioner and her employers. Whether the legal precedence it set can be used to deny women maternity benefits in the future is difficult to predict; given that it didn’t really deviate from the letter of the law though, that seems unlikely. However, since the specific nursing challenges individual women may face aren’t necessarily tied to the nature of their work, or whether they are employees of the central government, perhaps, this is an issue that requires consideration by the lawmakers.
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