The Punjab Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Bill 2019 has been submitted to the Punjab Assembly demanding more benefits and security for women at their workplaces during pregnancies. The bill was submitted in the assembly by PML-N MPA Hina Pervaiz Butt. It sought amendment to the Punjab Maternity Benefits Ordinance of 1958 to facilitate and encourage the involvement and retention of women in the workforce. The proposed bill states that every workplace having 50 or more employees will be bound to establish a daycare centre. Every woman will be allowed to visit the daycare centre four times a day. Additionally, every woman will be allowed to have two breaks in a day for the nursing care of her child until he or she attains the age of 15 months. The bill also provides penalties for the contravention of its provisions. Any employer, who violates any provision of the ordinance, will be punished with fine of up to Rs 0.5 million. Every woman employed in the organization will be entitled to maternity leave for a duration of 24 weeks.

The existing legal regime under the Maternity Benefits Ordinance, 1958 selectively provides maternity benefits to only those women engaged in the manufacturing process, and leaves unprotected those gainfully employed in other sectors. The existing law does not provide an enforcement procedure or claim mechanism for maternity benefits, and instead criminalizes violation of the ordinance and subjects it to a minor penalty of Rs 3,000. The 2019 Bill seeks to amend the situation for the benefit of the working women. However, will the proposed Bill actually help the cause of women is open to debate? The Bill instead of improving the situation of gender equality might become the cause of worsening it.

Maternity benefits and provision of child care centres will discourage employers from hiring women. A rational employer will aim to reduce his costs in order to increase his profit margins. The maternity leave, whether paid or unpaid, will increase the anticipated cost of hiring women of child-bearing years. In case of paid maternity leave, employer will have to pay the woman on leave and also her replacement and in case of unpaid maternity leave, employer will have to bear the cost of absenteeism. Moreover, according to the proposed Bill, every establishment with 50 or more female employees will have to establish a day care centre. Therefore, the employer will need to factor in this cost as well when deciding who to hire. 

In the case of male employee, the employer can avoid a number of costs: paid maternity leave, loss due to absence of woman from the work force and the risk that the woman will not join the workforce again and the employer will have to hire and train a new person. It is against this backdrop that the neoclassical economic model will predict statistical discrimination against women. Even though it is unlawful to discriminate based on the gender of the person, it is very difficult and costly to prove that a man was hired instead of woman based on the gender. Therefore, in the face of no viable protection against gender discrimination, maternity leave will incentivize employers to hire men, other things being equal, instead of women.

Gender discrimination is a valid concern in Pakistan and still plagues economic, social, domestic and other spheres of the society. In the domestic sphere, it is incorrectly assumed that since a woman is the one bearing the child, it is also her responsibility to rear one. This assumption is the cause of much of the prevalent gender inequality in our society. The proposed Bill while providing for maternity leave and child care centres in establishments with women actually reinforces the aforementioned assumption. When state is mandating establishments with women to have child care centres, it is in fact agreeing with the assumption that these are the women who have the primary responsibility of bringing up a child. 

 Having said that, states are not totally helpless in their attempt to address gender inequality. States can use parental leave policies to target gender discrimination. If the state makes it compulsory for employers to grant both paternity and maternity leave, the neoclassical model will predict that it will reduce gender inequality in labour market. A rational employer while selecting a male or a female employee will not take into consideration the cost of parental leave since it will remain same in both scenarios. Gender neutral parental leave and gender equality are positively correlated that substantiates the neoclassical prediction mentioned above. The Scandinavian countries were the first ones to adopt gender neutral parental leave. As evidenced by different gender equality indexes, the same countries are at the top of these indexes. Consequently, a gender-neutral approach might improve the abysmal gender inequality situation in Pakistan.