18 Apr 2017 15:44 IST

For corporates, ‘family business’ now comes first

From surrogacy to paternity leave, India Inc walks the extra mile for staff

India’s contentious Maternity Bill, passed in March, has found a new champion in Reliance Industries, the country’s largest private sector company.

On Monday, the corporate heavyweight sent an internal circular to its employees announcing changes in its parental leave policy, including introducing benefits to ‘commissioning mothers’ who have a child through surrogate mothers.

“With effect from April 1, there will be introduction of leave of 12 weeks (84 calendar days) for commissioning mothers,” RIL’s HR department said. It also said it would extend maternity leave for 26 weeks (182 calendar days), from 180 days, for regular employees in line with government’s amended Maternity Act.

While many corporates have extended paid maternity leave to six months, RIL’s introduction of benefits to a commissioning mother is interesting as there has been furious debate over the definition of the term.

According to the draft Assisted Reproductive Techniques (Regulation) Bill, popularly known as the ‘surrogacy Bill’, a commissioning mother is one who uses her egg to have a surrogate child, leaving it a bit grey as to whether a mother who opts for an outside egg donor will qualify for this benefit or not. Which is why a lot of companies are still mulling over introducing this provision, though there are many, like SunLife Financial Asia Service Centre, that have done it already.

Two mindsets

As Rajeev Bhardwaj, Vice-President, HR of SunLife Financial Asia Service Centre, points out, there are two mindsets in the industry. One set of companies will do the minimum required by law. The other set will follow the letter and spirit of the law.

Though some argue that the Maternity Bill puts a lot of cost pressure on companies, the costs of providing benefits will be offset in the form of retention and stability within the organisation, argues Moorthy K Uppaluri, MD & CEO, Randstad India. However, he says, organisations will need to plan well in advance as to how they would want to chart out the career progression of employees who are rejoining the workforce.

Bharadwaj agrees. In the case of policies like surrogacy, he adds, HR managers would also consider the social milieu before adopting the provision. “How many employees in India really opt for surrogacy?” he asks. Also he says, if an employee here is bold enough to opt for such a decision, the employer must commend that boldness and step forward to support.

Saundarya Rajesh, Founder-President, AVTAR group, a specialist diversity consulting firm, lauds the Reliance step in adopting the new amendments but has a few misgivings about whether it would help the larger cause of getting more women in India back to office.

She points out that large corporates like HUL and Reliance already have good gender practices and the new Maternity Act is a bit like preaching to the choir as far as they are concerned. “When AVTAR did its Best Companies for Women in India survey, we found that 250 leading corporates already had good policies in place,” she says.

But the reality, she says, is that a majority of working women in India are employed by small and medium enterprises, which don’t have such a good compliance record. “The government should have given some tax benefits to SMEs that would incentivise them to introduce benefits,” she says.

The other point she makes is that while there is much energy in corporate India to address the needs of women who leave the workforce due to pregnancy and care of child, she does not see equal energy in addressing the supply issue. "What are they doing different to make sure more numbers of women come into the workorce at the entry level and are oriented to focus on a long career?" she queries.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)

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