[Lavanya Chawla is an Associate at J-Law Offices, New Delhi.]
A three Judge bench of the Supreme Court in Dr. Kavita Yadav v The Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Department & Ors (17 August 2023) held that if a woman has worked in an establishment for 80 days, she would be eligible for full maternity benefits, even if such benefits exceed the term of contract.
An employee, Dr. Kavita, was appointed as Sr. Resident (Pathology) in Janakpuri Super Speciality Hospital w.e.f. 12 June 2014 for one year, “extendable on yearly basis upto a maximum of three years”. The employee’s service was extended on annual basis twice. Prior to expiry of the last term of one year i.e. before 11 June 2017, the employee became pregnant.
On 24 May 2017, the employee applied for maternity leave commencing from 1 June 2017, under the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961 (“MBA”). On 9 June 2017, her employer informed her that since her contractual term is ending on 11 June 2017, she could avail only 11 days of maternity benefits. Further, the employer informed her that no further extension of contractual employment was permissible under the applicable rules.
The Central Administrative Tribunal, New Delhi (“CAT”) and the Delhi High Court (in a writ petition challenging the decision of the CAT, New Delhi) rejected the contention of the employee. The Delhi High Court observed that the purpose of MBA is not to extend the period of contract, to enable her to avail maternity benefits under the MBA.
The Delhi High Court held that the use of the expression “actual absence” in section 5(1) of the MBA presupposes that but for the maternity leave the woman employee would be expected to remain “present”. Once the contractual employment comes to an end, there would be no question of the woman employee remaining “absent” since she would not be expected to remain “present” following the determination of her contractual employment.
Judgement of the Supreme Court
The principal question before the Supreme Court was whether maternity benefits under the MBA “…would apply to a lady employee appointed on contract if the period for which she claims such benefits overshoots the contractual period”. (per paragraph 2 of the judgment)
The Supreme Court observed as under:
- The MBA provides for an embargo on the employer from “dismissing or discharging a woman who absents herself from work in accordance with the provisions of the Act during her absence. This embargo has been imposed under Section 12(2)(a) of the Act. The expression “discharge” is of wide import and it would include “discharge on conclusion of the contractual period”.
[Author’s note: It appears that reference to section12(2)(a) above should be read as reference to section12(1), as section 12(2)(a) only applies to entitlement to maternity benefits in the event of discharge or dismissal “anytime during the pregnancy, whereas it is section 12(1) that actually places an embargo on discharge during absence”.]
- The Supreme Court held that once an employee is entitled to maternity benefits under section 5(2) of the MBA (i.e. completed 80 days of employment), “such benefits can travel beyond the term of employment also. It is not co-terminus with the employment tenure”. (per paragraph 6 of the judgment)
- The Supreme Court relied on its earlier judgment in respect of women employees on muster roll with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (“MCD”), an elected local body at Delhi and held that women employees’ “tenure also stood notionally extended so far as application of maternity benefits” under the MBA. The Supreme Court also referred to its previous judgment in relation to entitlement of Union Government employees under CCS (Leave Rules), 1971 and, based on the ratio of the referenced judgments and in the light of section 27 of the MBA, it held that section 27 of the MBA, “gives overriding effect to the statute on any award, agreement or contract of service”.
Essentially, the Supreme Court held that once an employee fulfils the eligible criteria for availing maternity benefits (i.e. completes 80 days of employment), “she would be eligible for full maternity benefits even if such benefits exceed the duration of her contract.” (at paragraph 10)
The above case deals with a peculiar situation where a woman had started availing maternity benefits during the term of her employment, but her employment ended before she could avail the full benefits under the MBA. In light of these facts, the judgement of the Supreme Court, allowing the woman to avail maternity benefits for the residual term, appears to be just and fair considering the provisions of law and the genuine expectations of modern working women.
However, the observation of the Court that the word “discharge” under section 12(2)(a) includes even “discharge on conclusion of contract period” potentially extends the impact of above judgement to cases where term of contract had expired and the woman had not even started availing maternity benefits.
Section 12(2)(a) says that a woman will be entitled to maternity benefits if she is discharged or dismissed “at any time during her pregnancy”. If the line followed by Supreme Court is adopted, a woman employee would be entitled to avail maternity benefits even in cases where her term of employment has ended much before commencement of maternity benefits. This ambiguity is further compounded by the Court’s observation that a woman will be entitled to full maternity benefits once she has fulfilled the entitlement criteria specified in section 5(2) (i.e., 80 day employment).
In our view, the judgment of the Supreme Court would lead to unintended difficulty in implementation as it is common, especially in the private sector, that employees are taken on short term contracts (be it six months or one year) for particular projects that then expire in due course. If the expression “discharge” under section12(2)(a) is interpreted to include “expiry of term of contract”, an employer would be forced to give maternity benefits to a woman employee even though her contract period has expired prior to commencement of maternity benefit period.
We believe the purpose of the Supreme Court was to extend a beneficial legislation to the fullest possible extent, thereby giving benefit to female employees; however, the particular interpretation attributed by the Supreme Court to the provisions of MBA may lead to unexpected implementational issues.
– Lavanya Chawla