DELHI HIGH COURT HELD CONTRACTUAL EMPLOYEES ARE ENTITLED TO MATERNITY BENEFITS
For centuries, in the conventional concept of family, the men were assigned the role of gatherers and the women were assigned the role of bearers. It was only gradually that women of the family started to find their place in the society and stepped out of the four walls of their home. However, the liberty did not come easy to them. For decades, women, who constitute almost half of the segment of our society, have to fight their way towards equal treatment in services, whether skilled or unskilled.
The aforesaid was reflected in a recent case titled “Annwesha Deb Vs. Delhi State Legal Services Authority” W.P.(C) 11016/2017 decided by Delhi High Court, wherein the Delhi High Court was confronted with a legal issue as whether a working woman is entitled to maternity benefits while working on a contractual basis and consequently, whether the employer is liable to pay the maternal benefits to the working woman which are being granted to the employees similarly placed on a regular basis.
As per the facts of the case, the working woman (petitioner) was appointed in the Juvenile Justice Board, New Delhi (employer) as a legal aid counsel on a daily fee basis, fixed at Rs. 1750/-, vide appointment letter issued in 2016. During the period of her contractual employment, the petitioner conceived a child in April 2017 and hence, she applied for maternity leave of seven months vide application dated 6th October 2017 requesting the grant of maternity benefits to her. The said request was declined by employer stating that there is no provision for the grant of maternity benefits for legal services authorities, leading the petitioner to approach the Delhi High Court by filing petition with prayer to direct the employer to grant her all consequential maternity benefits that are available for its regular employees.
In the Court, the employer opposed the prayers stating that the petitioner is not entitled to claim maternity benefits since she was only an empaneled advocate who discharges her services and is not an employee of the respondent organization to whom such benefits accrue. The empaneled advocates only render their services when called upon or required by the respondent for which they are paid the honorarium. since there is no employer- employee relationship between the parties, there is no entitlement under Section 5 of the Maternity Benefit Act,1961 (MB Act).
After examining the legal provisions of the MB Act, the Court observed that the term woman who are subject matters of the MB Act has been defined under Section 3(o) as under: “(o) “woman” means a woman employed, whether directly or through any agency, for wages in any establishment.”
The Court observed that admittedly, the petitioner was being paid a fixed daily fee @Rs. 1750/- in exchange of her services arising out a contract between the parties. It is apparent that she was receiving remuneration in terms of her appointment which required her to be paid a fee prescribed in terms of the Schedule. There is no doubt that the case of the petitioner is covered under the definition of wages as provided under the Maternity Benefit Act.
The appointment letter of the petitioner issued in 2016 also shows that the petitioner was working for a number of fixed hours, as per the time schedule of the Juvenile Justice Boards, and was also required to report to the Observation Homes after the working hours of the juvenile court. Therefore, in view of the requirements of the petitioner’s appointment, the Court found no force in the argument on behalf of the respondent that the relationship between the parties was of a client and advocate and not that of an employer and employee. The petitioner was not being paid a professional fee, but was being paid remuneration for her services and was also required to work as per a specific fixed time scheduled.
The Court observed that in law, there is no difference between a female regular employee and a contractual employee/ad hoc employee because a female employee whether regular, temporary or ad hoc, is a female for all intents and purposes and she has a matrimonial home, matrimonial life, and after conception, she has to undergo the entire maternity period, same treatment, pains and other difficulties which a regular employee has to undergo. Thus, there is no occasion for making discrimination and if, less period of maternity leave is granted to a contractual employee, it will amount to discrimination, in terms of Article 14 of the Constitution of India. The Court observed that forcing a woman to choose between her family and career would be a failure of society and emphasized that the reliefs under the MB Act should come as a matter of right and not as a benefit.
The Court thus allowed the petition and directed the employer to release all medical, monetary and other benefits that accrued in favor of the petitioner on account of her pregnancy, as per the terms of the MB Act including the benefits for 26 weeks.
Anhad Law’s Perspective
The judgment by Delhi High Court is significant as the Court has emphasized that maternity benefits do not merely arise out of statutory right or contractual relationship between an employer and employee but are a fundamental and integral part of the identity and dignity of a woman who chooses to start a family and bear a child. The liberty to carry a child is a fundamental right that the Constitution of the Country grants its citizens under Article 21. Therefore, to stand in the way of exercise of this right by a woman, without procedure or intervention of law, is not only violative of the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution of India but also against the basic tenets of social justice.
The Court further observed that even in this day and age, if a woman is made to choose between her familial life and a career progression, the society would be failing in its duty by not providing her the means to thrive, whether in professional life or in personal life. The work environment should be conducive enough for a woman to facilitate unimpaired decision making regarding personal and professional life and to ensure that a woman who chooses to have both, a career and motherhood, is not forced to make an “either-or” decision.
The Court noted that the MB Act in place which grants the reliefs to an expecting or a new mother, considers such reliefs as a “Benefit‟, when in fact the reliefs should come as a matter of right to the women employees who may be in that position. In this respect, a positive change of perspective is also required along with a more adaptive approach in the matter of grant of maternity benefits.
In conclusion, the MB Act is a progressive piece of legislation that has helped to protect the rights of working women in India. However, there are still some challenges that women face in accessing these benefits. For example, some employers may not be aware of their legal obligations under the MB Act, or they may try to discourage women from taking maternity leave on hyper-technical grounds.
As the claim of maternity leave is founded on the grounds of fair play and social justice and is of utmost importance to fight against social injustice and gender inequality, it is vital that the words used in the MB Act are not to be taken in their plain meaning but interpreted purposively.
-Manishi Pathak, Founding Partner and Ranjan Jha, Partner
Disclaimer: The contents of the above publication are based on interpretation, analysis and understanding of applicable laws and updates in law, within the knowledge of authors. Readers should take steps to ascertain the current developments given the everyday changes that may be occurring in India on internationally on the subject covered hereinabove. These are personal views of authors and do not constitute a legal opinion, analysis or interpretation. This is an initiative to share developments in the world of law or as may be relevant for a reader. No reader should act on the basis of any statement made above without seeking professional and up-to-date legal advice.