The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 was enacted to secure women's right to pregnancy and maternity leave and to afford women with as much flexibility as possible to live an autonomous life, both as a mother and as a worker, if they so desire.
Recently, the Hon'ble Supreme Court passed a noteworthy ruling in the case of Dr. Kavita Yadav vs. the Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Department & Ors, envisaging that continuation of maternity benefits is in-built in the statute itself, where the benefits would survive and continue despite the cessation of employment. This judgment highlighted the safeguarding and rights to maternity benefits that extend beyond the limitations of the employment duration.
This verdict marks a notable stride in safeguarding and advancing the well-being of women in the workforce, guaranteeing the preservation of their maternity benefits beyond the boundaries of contractual arrangements. It reaffirms the legislative purpose of extending assistance to women even post their employment tenure and establishes a forward-looking standard for forthcoming cases pertaining to maternity benefits for contractual workers.
Facts of the Case:
The appellant joined on a temporary basis as a Senior Resident (Pathology) in Janakpuri, Super Speciality Hospital Society with effect from June 12, 2014, for a term of one year extendable up to a maximum of three years. She was twice given extension of one year and 3 years period of contract was to be ended on June 11, 2017.
The appellant applied for earned leave on medical grounds as she was not able to attend duties on account of her being pregnant. On May 24, 2017 the appellant further applied for maternity leave commencing from June 01, 2017 indicating that her expected date of delivery was July 07, 2017.
The respondent stated that maternity leave could be granted only up to June 11, 2017 as per the terms and conditions of the offer of appointment since the appellant's contract would terminate on June 11, 2017, therefore, her application for maternity leave was not admissible.
Being aggrieved, the appellant filed an original application bearing OA No. 906/2018 seeking relief from the Central Administrative Tribunal for grant of maternity leave to her. The Tribunal held that any contractual period has a certain time limit and if the conditions do not permit extension of the same period, it comes to an end at the end of the prescribed period. Since in the present case, the three years period ended on June 11, 2017, grant of maternity leave beyond that period will not be admissible. Thus, the relief sought by the appellant in the present OA was not sustainable in the eyes of law, and the same was dismissed vide order dated April 12, 2019.
Thereafter, the appellant filed an application before the Hon'ble High Court assailing the impugned order passed by the Tribunal contending that merely because her appointment was contractual for a limited period of 3 years, which were to expire on June 11, 2017, was no ground to deny maternity leave and other benefits.
The High Court took due notice of the fact that the outer limit of the petitioner's contract was three years as stipulated in her initial appointment itself. Thus, the petitioner cannot insist that her contract should be continued beyond the said period, and she therefore, cannot avail of maternity benefit for the period after the expiry of the contractual period.
Thus, the claim of maternity leave was denied vide order dated August 19, 2019 on the ground that:
"The grant of such a relief would tantamount to extending the period of contract, which is not the purport and purpose of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961. We, therefore, do not find any merit in the petition. Dismissed".
Appeal before the Apex Court:
An appeal was then filed before the Hon'ble Supreme Court expressing dissatisfaction with the ruling of the High Court that had limited maternity benefits to a mere 11-day period, using the expiration of a contractual arrangement as the basis.
Reliance was placed upon Section 5 of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 which states that:
"Subject to the provisions of this Act, every woman shall be entitled to, and her employer shall be liable for, the payment of maternity benefit at the rate of the average daily wage for the period of her actual absence, that is to say, the period immediately preceding the day of her delivery, the actual day of her delivery and any period immediately following that day."
It was further contended that in accordance with the provision of Section 5(2) of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, once the female employee has rendered service for 180 days continuously prior to the expected date of delivery, she would be entitled to maternity benefit. Since the appellant fulfills the requirement of having worked more than 180 days during the preceding 1 year, even as a contractual employee, her right to claim maternity benefit should not be denied.
The main concern which falls for determination in this appeal was as to whether the maternity benefits, as contemplated in the 1961 Act, would apply to a lady employee appointed on contractual terms, if the period for which she claims such benefits overshoots the contractual period?
The respondent sought to defend the reasoning given in the judgment under appeal, arguing that once the term or tenure of the contract ends, there cannot be a notional extension of the same by giving the employee the benefits of the 1961 Act in full, as contemplated in Section 5(2) thereof. It was submitted that any benefits that the appellant would be entitled to ought to be within the contractual period.
It was rightly observed by the Apex Court that:
"Section 12(2)(a) of the 1961 Act contemplates entitlement to the benefits under the 1961 Act even for an employee who is dismissed or discharged at any time during her pregnancy if the woman, but for such discharge or dismissal, would have been entitled to maternity benefits or medical bonus. Thus, continuation of maternity benefits is in-built in the statute itself, where the benefits would survive and continue despite the cessation of employment. In our opinion, what this legislation envisages is entitlement to maternity benefits, which accrues on fulfillment of the conditions specified in Section 5(2) thereof, and such benefits can travel beyond the term of employment also. It is not co-terminus with the employment tenure."
The court referred to the case of Municipal Corporation of Delhi vs Female Workers (Muster Roll), wherein a two-judge Bench extended benefits under the 1961 Act to workers engaged on a casual basis or on muster roll on daily wages.
In light of the ration and with regard to Section 27 of the 1961 Act, which gives overriding effect to the statute on any award, agreement or contract of service, the Supreme Court was of the opinion that the High Court erred in law in holding that the appellant was not entitled to maternity benefits beyond June 11, 2017.
It was reiterated by the Court that since the appellant had fulfilled the entitlement criteria specified in Section 5(2) of the Act, she would be eligible for full maternity benefits even if such benefits exceed the duration of her contract.
Accordingly, the judgment and order of the High Court was set aside and as a consequence thereof, the Tribunal's decision shall also stand invalidated.
The present appeal was, consequently, allowed and the employer was directed to extend maternity benefits as would have been available to the appellant in terms of Section 5 and 8 of the 1961 Act, after deducting thereof any sum that may already have been paid to the appellant under the same head or for such purpose vide order dated August 17, 2023.
Further, it was ordered that such benefits shall be extended to her within a period of three months from the date of communication of this judgment.
The marked decision constituted a significant ruling, suggesting that eligibility for maternity benefits, as outlined in section 5 of the 1961 Act, extends beyond the limitations of the employment duration.
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