Lawmakers all over the world have always sought to provide certain safeguards and benefits to the female workforce, especially when it’s related to maternity benefits. Furthermore, legislative authorities have attempted to rethink the existing legal framework for women from time to time to keep up with their growing presence in the global workforce.
The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 outlines maternity benefits in India. Every woman employed in an organization (with 10 or more employees, for 80 days or more) is eligible for maternity benefits.
In 2017, the Government of India amended the Act and provided for more inclusive maternity benefits for women. The Act was amended to include a new section, Section 5(5), under which women on maternity leave might gain work-from-home benefits. According to Section 5(5) of the Act, if the nature of the task entrusted to them allows it, an employer may enable nursing mothers to work from home under mutually agreed-upon conditions. In June 2021, the Government of India released an advisory encouraging companies to extend the remote working benefits to nursing mothers for at least one year from the date of childbirth, in accordance with the legislation and in response to the Covid-19 epidemic.
Karnataka High Court’s ruling
In Prachi Sen v. Ministry of Defence, the Karnataka High Court maintained that remote working benefits under Section 5(5) of the revised Act could only be granted depending upon the nature of the work.
Brief facts of the case: The petitioner worked as an executive engineer with the Semiconductor Technology and Applied Research Centre (STARC), a branch of the Ministry of Defense of India. After her maternity leave, the petitioner had not returned to work. She instead requested STARC for maternity leave and attempted to work from home in compliance with a Government of India directive. Following the petitioner's unlawful absence for two (2) months, STARC sent her a communication demanding that she return to work. The petitioner took to the court to complain about the communication and to seek benefits under the Act.
According to the High Court, the petitioner failed to cite any specific provision of law that would require the respondent organization to provide childcare leave to STARC officials in the same way that it is provided to Central Government employees.
The single-judge bench of Justice R. Devdas referred to Section 5(5) of the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, which states that maternity benefits, such as working from home, could only be provided if the nature of the work entrusted to the woman allowed her to do so.
It was noted that the premises of the respondent-organization were risky due to the use of chemicals and hazardous gases and that the employee was involved in sensitive and complicated research activity. As a result, the petitioner's work could not be carried out from home. During the proceedings, the court also noted that the respondent organization had cautioned the petitioner about unauthorized absence and the consequences of willful disobedience.
The court opined that it cannot overlook the fact that there were two severe waves of COVID-19 pandemic during the period of delivery and post-delivery, the first of which began in March 2020 which had prompted the State Government to declare a lockdown for a prolonged period, followed by a second wave in April 2021. As a result, if the petitioner was unable to return to the office, the respondent organization was expected to consider the petitioner sympathetically.
Although the petitioner's request for child care leave was denied, the court gave granted the petitioner a chance to make a new representation regarding the unauthorized absence and seek regularization of the same.
The order is an important step toward recognizing certain limits of employers in delivering benefits under the Act. At the same time, the order should not be interpreted as allowing employers to refuse benefits under Section 5(5) of the Act if the work allows it. Employers must instead be proactive in providing flexibility to nursing moms and ensuring that adequate childcare services are available in or near the workplace.
 (Writ Petition number. 22979 of 2021)