On June 3, 2019, food aggregator and restaurant discovery service provider, Zomato introduced a policy whereby paid parental leave for a period of 26 weeks would be provided to its employees. Zomato has operations in 13 countries at present and they will follow the government mandated policy wherever applicable or their own policy of 26-week long parental leaves, whichever provides for a higher period of leave. The new policy introduced on Zomato’s blog has been introduced in furtherance of their belief that in order for people to perform to their optimum potential, they must be in a position to attain meaningful intersection between their professional and personal ambitions.
According to the policy, the above parental leave can be availed by both mothers and fathers as well as by other non-birthing parents including in cases of surrogacy, adoption and same-sex partners. Understanding the financial strain that a new child can bring for a family, Zomato is also going to provide an endowment amounting to USD 1000 per child (approx. INR 69, 280) every time an employee welcomes a new baby into their family. The new policy also has a retrospective effect on employees who have had a child in the last 6 months before the date of incorporation of the new policy.
Let’s first understand the demographics of Zomato’s employees or ‘Zomans’ as the entity likes to call them. It is important to understand that a large portion of persons working under ‘Zomato’ is comprised of the brand’s large delivery fleet, which is about 140k large according to their annual report for the financial year 2019. The employees who function as delivery persons are under the control of their delivery partners, mostly partner restaurants or delivery partners. These Zomato workers are, therefore, beyond the scope of application of this new parental leave policy. Yet, the delivery persons are the lot that comes to mind when people think of Zomato and its employees. Anyone with a basic understanding of how employment works would be able to gather that the delivery boys wearing the bright red Zomato shirts are not even their employees and hence, none of Zomato’s policies would be applicable to them. They would be governed by the restaurant’s policies or the terms dictated by the delivery partners that Zomato collaborates with. In other words, the policy applies to the ‘white collar employees’ of the company alone.
These Zomato workers are, therefore, beyond the scope of application of this new parental leave policy. Yet, the delivery persons are the lot that comes to mind when people think of Zomato and its employees.
Therefore, Zomato’s policy fails to bring about any real-time change. Prima facie, it is a positive development because of the popularity that Zomato has achieved in the last few years. It may help bring about a minuscule change in the larger picture, which is still relatively bleak for India. For instance, it may encourage competitors such as Swiggy, Food Panda, Uber Eats etc. to come up with similar policies, provided their revenue model permits the same. However, in the absence of governmental regulations/rules/laws requiring the same, the possibility of this happening is relatively low.
Yet, Zomato’s policy is a step in the right direction. So far, the Swedish furniture brand IKEA is the only one that offers a 6-month long parental leave benefit to its male and female employees in India. This is not surprising since the country of the brand’s origin, Sweden is one of the leading countries offering equal parental leave schemes in the world. It is in this respect that Zomato’s policy becomes particularly impressive. Zomato’s foundations lie in India, a country that is having trouble implementing its maternity benefits efficiently. Therefore, to have a company founded in India propagate such a scheme is creditworthy. Given Zomato’s outreach in particular, a policy such as this one does have the potential to generate traction and debate on the important ideas of shared parenting, and child-rearing and nurturing not being the sole responsibility of the mother.
The concept of parental leave as envisaged in Zomato’s policy has also come under scrutiny across the globe because people believe that while men/fathers may avail the leave available to them, they are likely to treat the same as a paid holiday and not make truly use the period to take participate in the process of childcare. This was also cited as a reason by the former Minister for Women and Child Development in India, Maneka Gandhi for not introducing the concept of paternity leaves in India. However, it is important to understand that concepts of shared childcare and both the father and the mother being involved in raising the child are not prominent in India. Therefore, a policy such as this one and the ideas behind the promulgation of the same may create more conversation around the same and serve as the starting point for changing this patriarchal mindset of childcare being the sole domain of women. It will serve as an incentive for at least employees at Zomato, to be active participants in bringing up their children.
Such a policy also helps burst the bubble around the ideas of toxic masculinity that pervade Indian society. Most people still believe in the idea of fathers being the ‘tough’ parent and men, in general, being incapable of exhibiting emotion. The corollary to such a belief is that men who are emotionally involved in their families etc. are weak/emasculated. Policies such as this one serve as a tool to counter such a mindset to the extent that they normalize the idea of the father being equally involved, even emotionally, in the journey of bringing up a child.
The other significant clause in Zomato’s policy is that it explicitly also offers the benefits of its policy to same-sex couples. However, one must scrutinize the honesty behind this move. India may have decriminalized homosexual relationships in Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India. However, there has been no further development in the country in terms of legalizing homosexual marriages/adoption. In the absence of a framework that even permits same-sex couples to adopt children, the policy pretty much remains futile and to this extent, is merely an image-building exercise by the brand.
Despite its limited impact, Zomato’s policy is definitely a step in the right direction. In India, no law or policy provides for such a concept of parental leave so far. Currently, two legislations in the country lay down a framework for maternity leave – the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 (MB Act) and the Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 enhanced the maternity leave period available to biological mothers to 26 weeks (for the first two children) and introduced 12-week maternity leave for an adoptive mother and a commissioning mother. While the MB Act does not prescribe a wage threshold for availing benefits, the ESI Act provides 26 weeks of paid maternity leave to women earning wages upto INR 21,000. Paternity leave is available to only central government employees for 15 days under the All India and Central Civil Service Rules.
The other significant clause in Zomato’s policy is that it explicitly also offers the benefits of its policy to same-sex couples.
India has made feeble attempts to create equal rights for parents to avail leaves in the event of childbirth or adoption in the private sector. For instance, in 2017, the Paternity Benefit Bill, 2017, which advocated equal benefits for both parents, that is, the mother and the father did make it to the news but never to the Parliament for discussion. Under this Bill, paternity benefit for a period up to three months from the date of delivery of the child or the date of handing over of an adopted child or a child born through surrogacy would have been available to fathers in the private sector.
While the passage and implementation of the Paternity Benefit Bill would have been one massive leap forward in the field of equality between men and women, the cost of implementation of parental leave schemes has always resulted in executional failures in India. This was clearly evidenced from the fact that the Ministry of Labour and Employment received a number of complaints from women whose employment contracts were wrongfully terminated primarily because companies did not want to sponsor a 26-week long ‘vacation’ for their women employees. Therefore, the enhanced maternity benefit of 26 weeks became an obstacle for the employment of women in India.
Another lethargic attempt was made by the government on November 16, 2018, to show that it wanted to solve the abovementioned problem when it circulated a proposal to bring about a Maternity Leave Incentive Scheme. Under this scheme, employers would be entitled to reimbursement of 7 weeks’ wages paid to women employees earning up to INR 15, 000 per month when such employer allowed its women employees to avail the 26-week maternity benefit, already enshrined under the MB Act. The entire cost of the scheme to be borne by the government, if implemented, was calculated at approximately 400 crores. However, this scheme too has not been implemented till date.
As is evident from the existing legislative framework, Zomato’s policy is a departure from the law and is a purely entity-based formula, in the private sector. However, should this be the way forward for Indian companies? Will adopting such individual policy plans bolster support for the idea of parental leave and subsequently herald an era wherein India adopts parental leave policies similar to those available in Scandinavian countries?
All of these questions may be answered eventually but right now, Zomato’s policy points in the direction of the new government or the Modi 2.0 regime to look back at its framework that provides only for badly implemented maternity leave and attempt to create a better work environment for all employees, irrespective of gender or sexuality. Till then, we have to be content with the idea that companies such as Zomato and IKEA will incentivize their competitors into coming up with similar policies thereby, helping improve the gender disparity in at least a handful of workspaces.
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