In a significant judgment that can come to the aid of women who are employed on a contractual basis, the Delhi High Court has held that an ad-hoc employee will be entitled to maternity benefits under the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, beyond the period of the contract, for a pregnancy occurring during the tenure of the employment.
Since the object of the Maternity Benefits Act is to grant benefits to the woman both during pregnancy and after childbirth, the High Court said that the benefits cannot be tied up to the tenure of the contract.
As long as pregnancy occurs during the tenure of the contract, she should be entitled to maternity benefits, the Court held. A bench comprising Justices Rajiv Shakdher and Talwant Singh observed :
“The object and purpose of the 1961 Act being, to not only regulate employment but also maternity benefits which precede and follow childbirth, point in the direction that tying up the tenure of the contract with the period for which a woman employee can avail of maternity benefit is contrary to the mandate of the legislation i.e., the 1961 Act.
Thus, as long as conception occurs before the tenure of the contract executed between a woman-employee and her employer expires, she should be entitled to, maternity benefits as provided under the 1961 Act”.
The question which arose in the petition was whether an ad hoc employee is entitled to maternity benefit for a period that spills beyond the tenure of the contract?
Brief Factual Background
In this case, the employee was working on a contractual basis at Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar Memorial Hospital under the Delhi Government.
The offer made to the employee provided that the appointment would be for a period of 45 / 89 days or till a regular incumbent joins the post, whichever is earlier.
Her tenure was extended four times. Notably, each time the respondent’s tenure lasted 89 days, and after a short break of one day, the contract was renewed for another 89 days. Her last tenure was till 27.06.2017. Two months before the expiry of the term, on 17.04.2017, she applied for emergency maternity leave as due to complicated pregnancy, she was advised to undergo an emergent cesarean section procedure.
However, the hospital, instead of granting her maternity leave, terminated her services by an office order dated 23.05.2017, with effect from 24.04.2017. Aggrieved with this, she approached the Central Administrative Tribunal and also the National Commission for Women. Following that, the hospital agreed to give her maternity benefits, but only till 27.06.2017 (the date of tenure end).
The employee then approached the Tribunal again seeking maternity benefits for 26 weeks with effect from 17.04.2017. The Tribunal directed the hospital to grant her maternity benefits in terms of Section 5(2) of the Act.
Challenging the Tribunal’s direction, the hospital approached the High Court. The hospital’s primary argument was that Tribunal had erred in directing to grant maternity leave to the respondent for the entire 26 weeks, without having regard to the fact that her tenure had culminated on 27.06.2017.
High Court’s Analysis
The Bench observed that the Act seeks to regulate the employment of women in certain establishments for given periods before and after child-birth, and, in particular, endeavors to provide for maternity benefit.
“Clearly, the provisions of the 1961 Act seek to invest a woman with a statutory right to take maternity leave and seek payment for the period that she is absent from duty on account of her pregnancy, albeit in accordance with the provisions of the 1961 Act,” the Bench said.
The Court also stated that the provisions of the Act do not differentiate between a permanent employee and a contractual employee, or even a daily wage worker.
“The provisions of the 1961 Act do not differentiate between a permanent employee and a contractual employee, or even a daily wage (muster roll) worker. This position stands unambiguously articulated in the judgment of the Supreme Court rendered in Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) v. Female Workers (Muster Roll) & Anr. (2000) 3 SCC 224”, the Court noted.
“Pertinently, the 1961 Act does not tie in the grant of maternity benefit to the tenure of the woman employee”, the Court observed.
The Court noted the two limiting factors for the grant of maternity benefits are:
- The woman-employee should have worked in an establishment of her employer for a minimum period of 80 days in 12 months immediately preceding the date of her expected delivery.
- The maximum period for which she can avail maternity leave benefit cannot exceed 26 weeks, of which, not more than 8 weeks shall precede the date of her expected delivery.
In this backdrop, the Court noted :
“Therefore, linking the tenure of employment, in this case, a contractual employee, with the period for which maternity benefits can be availed by a woman employee, is not an aspect that emerges on a plain reading of the provisions of the 1961 Act”.
“The object and purpose of the 1961 Act being, to not only regulate employment but also maternity benefits which precede and follow childbirth, point in the direction that tying up the tenure of the contract with the period for which a woman employee can avail of maternity benefit is contrary to the mandate of the legislation i.e., the 1961 Act. Thus, as long as conception occurs before the tenure of the contract executed between a woman-employee and her employer expires, she should be entitled to, in our opinion, maternity benefits as provided under the 1961 Act.”
“As adverted to hereinabove, there is nothing stated in sub-section (2) of section 5 of the 1961 Act which links the grant of maternity to the tenure of the contract”
Benefits of Act must be given once the conditions are fulfilled
The Court further held :
“The benefit granted to the respondent under Section 5 of the 1961 Act should have a full play, in our view, once the prerequisites contained therein are fulfilled by the claimant i.e., the woman-employee”.
“The 1961 Act is social legislation that should be worked in a manner that progresses not only the best interest of the women-employee but also of the child, both at the pre-natal and post-natal stage. Without financial wherewithal, the interest of women-employee and her child is likely to be severely impacted,” the Court said.
Not interfering with the order passed by the Tribunal, the Court dismissed the Petition.