It was over an Eid family dinner, years ago, that I overheard the women talk about the challenges of balancing work and family after marriage. I have sat through countless dinners and countless conversations in my life, yet that one night remains distinctly etched in my mind. The exhaustion on my cousin’s face as she held her two months old child revealed to me not just the challenges of motherhood, but the general lack of support system for women – both practical and emotional. My cousin, however, worked as a doctor in a reputable private hospital and was given a maternity package. What about the countless women employed in the informal sector, that are hardly recognized as ‘employed’ and live on daily wages? Years later following that conversation, I would learn that the Constitution of Pakistan actually does recognize maternity benefits for “working women” under Article 37: Promotion of social justice and eradication of social evils (PAK. Const. art 37). In fact, Pakistan has quite a few federal and provincial as well as international laws pertaining to pre and post-natal maternity care. Their implementation, on the other hand, remains suspect and largely undocumented.
Purniya Awan writes that there are four main laws that govern maternity benefits in Pakistan (Awan, 2016).
Mines Maternity Benefits Act, 1981
Provincial Employees’ Social Security Ordinance, 1965
The West Pakistan Maternity Benefit Ordinance, 1958
The Civil Servants Act, 1973 (Revised, 1980)
All four laws recognize a maternity leave of maximum 12 weeks, with a 6 weeks post-natal leave without any deduction in wages, but differ in the criteria of eligibility. According to The Mines Act, 1981, female employees must be employed for at least 6 months before their delivery is due to be eligible to avail this package, whereas the period is 4 months under Maternity Benefits Ordinance, 1958. For Provincial Employees’ Social Security Ordinance (PESSO), 1965, the criterion is “contribution paid in your respect for at least 90 days in the preceding 6 months”. The set employment duration prior to delivery stands contrary to the (revised) Maternity Protection Convention introduced by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2000 which stipulates no such conditions (Rahim, 2021). The revised Convention also updated the period of maternity leave to at least 14 weeks, with a 6 weeks period of post-natal leave as well as maternity benefits after returning to work, including mandatory daycare centre and nursing breaks during the working hours. The 18th amendment to the Constitution in 2010, however, abrogated the 1958 Ordinance as federal law and reconstituted working women rights as a provincial matter (Awan, 2016).
A brief inspection of these laws, their compliance with international labour rights standards, and their multiples revisions is enough to highlight one important aspect: their ambiguous nature. While there is little data to show the extent of implementation maternity laws have in Pakistan, identifying some of the loopholes in legislation can lead us to some disappointing inferences. The policy differences between the public and private sector for one make it harder to document a visible trend as does their applicability on federal and provincial level. Since the Ordinance 1958 was repealed, Sindh has passed two laws covering maternity benefits: The Sindh Employees’ Social Security (SESS) Act, 2016 and The Sindh Maternity Benefit Act, 2018. While SESS Act of 2016 introduces the same protections, benefits, and eligibility criteria for working women in Sindh as does PESSO, 1965, The Sindh Maternity Benefit Act, 2018 extends the maternity leave period to fully paid 16 weeks, with 12 weeks of post-natal rest and no reduction in wages. It also provides an additional leave in case of pregnancy-related complications such as a miscarriage, yet also increases the qualification criteria to a “continuous period of one year preceding the date of her expected delivery” to receive these benefits (Khan, 2018). Although it applies to all female employees working for wages in private, federal, or semi-government organizations, not much can be said about its enforcement. While some private sector organizations such as Unilever, P&G, Khaadi, and Telenor have expanded employee benefits including maternity packages in line with the international standards – Unilever employees are entitled to 6 months of fully paid maternity leave – for others, the law largely remains neglected and often becomes a source of discrimination by itself (Rehman et al., 2017).
While all maternity benefit laws have been categorical in criminalizing the dismissal of pregnant employees while they are away on leave, employers not only violate this law, but also use this as a basis to deny them jobs, promotions, and wages. Pregnancy is assumed to be a ‘distraction’ which becomes an excuse to take away projects from female employees with some organizations terminating them simply because they do not have a maternity leave policy (Rehman et al., 2017). Furthermore, of the two most ‘progressive’ laws on maternity benefits including The Sindh Maternity Benefit Act, 2018 and The Maternity and Paternity Leave Bill of 2018 (applies to all provinces), neither includes any anti-discrimination policies. No law can prevent the employer from withholding jobs and promotions on the basis of pregnancy and marital status. Most workplaces do not have established day-care centres nor do they allow nursing breaks during working hours (Ahmad, 2020). There are also no accessible mechanisms to register a complaint against the violation of existing laws and seek compensation for grievances on either provincial or federal level. The situation can only be assumed worse for the informal sector employees including domestic workers (mostly women and children) who are subjected to extremely hostile work environments marked by overtime work, low pay, and physical and sexual harassment (Javed, 2021).
While maternity leave in progressive workplaces is part of the employee benefits, it also becomes a source of extreme discriminatory practices. With one of the lowest female labour force, participation rates in the world – 22 % as recorded in 2019 by ILO – the state’s approach to policy must move beyond extending the maternity leave period to creating a system of enforcement, regulation, and grievance redressal of these laws. State policy must also take into account women employed in the informal sector to ensure that either their employers or the state itself provides free pre-natal and post-natal healthcare to mothers and their infants as well as paid maternity leave with complete employment security. More than ever, we must raise awareness about women and worker rights, and make legal recourse accessible.
Ahmad, I. (2020, February 8). Maternity protection in Pakistan. thenews. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/610420-maternity-protection-in-pakistan.
Awan, P. (2017, May 30). Maternity Leave Rights in Pakistan. Courting The Law. https://courtingthelaw.com/2016/02/10/commentary/maternity-leave-rights-in-pakistan/#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20Mines%20Maternity%20Benefits%20Act%2C%201981,the%20delivery%20and%20six%20weeks%20after%20the%20delivery.
Javed, U. (2021, February 8). Domestic exploitation. DAWN.COM. https://www.dawn.com/news/1606152.
Khan, P. by M. (2018, October 5). Good news or is it? Sindh passes Maternity Benefits Act. The Legal Brief. https://lawyereadia.wordpress.com/2018/10/05/good-news-sindh-passes-maternity-benefits-act/.
Labor force participation rate, female (% of female population ages 15+) (modeled ILO estimate) - Pakistan. Data. (2019). https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.CACT.FE.ZS?locations=PK.
PAK. Const. art 37
Rahim, P. (2021, April 13). Maternity leave. thenews. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/819314-maternity-leave.
Rehman, A., Naveed, F., Raza, M. (2017, December 22). Pregnant and fired: a Pakistani woman's workplace dilemma. DAWN.COM. https://www.dawn.com/news/1319160.
The Provincial Employees’ Social Security (Revised) Ordinance. (1965). ordinance.pdf (pessi.gop.pk)
The Sindh Employees Social Security Act. (2016). http://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/ELECTRONIC/102143/123389/F-