In January, almost immediately after she found out she was pregnant, a senior marketing executive working as the head of brand solutions for Pune-based Sakal Media Group informed her reporting manager about it. Following this, she was reportedly asked to relax and stay at home rather than come in to work. Confused, she told her boss she would continue working till she delivered her baby – and that there was plenty of time before that. The conversation ended there. A few months later, in April, she received a termination notice at her residence, sent to her by speed post.
The marketing executive, now in her ninth month of pregnancy, has continued her fight against the media group, sending them a legal notice and taking the case to the Maharashtra State Commission of Women (MSCW) where it is currently being heard. She plans to go to the high court next if there is no resolution.
The 33-year-old executive, who has over ten years of experience in marketing and is on the advisory board of several MBA colleges, joined the media group on June 22, 2017. She was on a six-month long probation period. “In December, the HR officials told me to continue working and assured me that my paperwork, which they indicated was a mere formality, would soon follow,” the marketing executive who requested anonymity told The Wire. That is when she also received another job offer, she said. “My boss told me that we could do a lot of constructive work at Sakal and that he was happy with my performance. So. I let the other offer go.”
No paperwork ever followed
Sakal Media Group runs newspapers and magazines in English as well as in Marathi, with circulation in the states of Maharashtra and Goa. Abhijit Pawar, nephew of Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar currently serves as the 80-year-old group’s managing director. Sakal Social Foundation, that is also helmed by Abhijit, says on its website that it seeks to ‘empower the women of Maharashtra’. In a video on Tanishka Women’s Dignity Forum, another of Abhijit’s initiatives, he says, “protecting dignity of women is more important than even empowering them”.
The executive alleges that while her e-mails to the human resource department about her confirmation in January went unanswered, she saw her reporting manager discreetly conduct interviews. On being asked about the interviews, he informed her that the team was being expanded.
On April 11 this year, she was called by the HR to a meeting and was reportedly asked to resign. “I was told they were downsizing. I was given time till April 30 to resign. I asked to see their maternity policy but it was not shared with me,” she says. She then wrote to the company’s MD Abhijit Pawar and CEO Pradeep Dwivedi. While she did not receive a written reply, on April 22, in a conference call with Dwivedi, she was allegedly told that even if she were to get maternity benefits using legal means, she would be fired ‘the day she joins back’.
Soon after, her termination letter arrived at home which said that her ‘extended probation’ had been terminated. “This the first time I even heard that my probation was extended. When I sent them a legal notice they replied with another legal notice using hurtful language, calling my pregnancy ‘purported’ and terming me ‘vindictive’,” the executive says.
When contacted, Sakal Media Group responded by saying that the executive was fired for her non-performance and discontinuation of her probation period. “She did not disclose her pregnancy to the company before she was fired and this allegation is an afterthought. This is a cooked up story,” said Mahendra Pisal, chief operating officer at Sakal Media Pvt Ltd, who looks after legal and compliance issues in the company.
India’s Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017 increased the paid maternity leave for women to 26 weeks, from the earlier 12 weeks. It also mandates that an organisation with over 50 employees have a creche facility in the premises and where possible the employer provide the working mother the option to work from home after delivery. New Zealand too recently increased paid parental leave to 22 weeks, up from 18 weeks for the primary caregiver this month. This will go up to 26 weeks in 2020, a move spearheaded by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardren who recently gave birth while in office.
While the policy is meant to help retain women in the labour force, a recent Indian study said that smaller organisations are actually looking at the cost as a prohibitive proposition in hiring women. This mirrors the global trend. A few years ago, the New York Times looked at studies across different countries on the consequences of paid maternity leave policies. The study found that while women were likely to remain employed they were less likely to get promotions when generous maternity leave policies are in place.
The executive now wants her job back with full maternity benefits. “I was not even given a chance to have a proper conversation. In fact, when I escalated the matter, I was told to focus on my baby and not my job,” she alleges.
Disha Shetty is a freelance science journalist.