Pregnant and fired: a Pakistani woman’s workplace dilemma

Updated March 08, 2017

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Telenor Pakistan’s day-care centre at its Islamabad head office.
Telenor Pakistan’s day-care centre at its Islamabad head office.

KARACHI: Many working Pakistani women feel discriminated against despite the increased participation of women in the workforce. Karachi-based civil litigant Naz* is on the way to starting a family. But the dread of sharing this news with colleagues at her respective law firm is giving the pregnant 30-year-old sleepless nights.

“I haven’t told them that I am pregnant because I’m anxious my [expected salary] raise won’t come through if my boss finds out,” she said, requesting anonymity out of concern for her job. “I also worry that my pregnancy announcement will influence the kind of work assigned to me... that I will be given ‘less important’ cases,” she added.

Although she is confident that her education at top UK law schools coupled with seven years of experience make her a good candidate for a raise, the young lawyer’s fears about being side-lined are not unfounded.

Conversations with dozens women for this report turn the spotlight on a lazy corporate approach in Pakistan which perpetuates discrimination against women in the workplace — especially when it comes to small and medium sized organisations. “This cu­l­ture is not limited to [working mothers], it also targets married fe­males,” said one respondent, Gill, in response to a survey on workplace discrimination conducted by Dawn.com to mark Women’s Day on March 8.

Mahum Siddik, an employee at a large bank in Karachi, shared a similar story. “When I was getting married I had been with the bank for five years and everyone kept asking if I would keep working. They just would not believe me no matter what I said. A man will never be asked this question when he is getting married,” she said, adding that the questions did not stop for the first year of her marriage even though she continued working.

Maternity leave policies exist — if you’re lucky

Although Article 37 (e) of the Constitution of Pakistan directs the state to ensure “maternity benefits for women in employment…” many organisations get away with violating rules surrounding maternity leave.

According to The West Pakistan Maternity Benefit Ordinance, 1958, women working at an establishment for four months or above are entitled to 12 weeks paid maternity leave. Under Pakistani law, the company is liable for providing paid leave for six weeks prior to and six week after the delivery.

Yet, with limited checks and balances, implementation remains sporadic across workplaces in the country. A basic three month paid maternity leave is a luxury.

“[Employers] are not called to account for violating the law. The beneficiaries of this law are women who are some of the most vulnerable workers, so if their rights are taken away they are in less of a position to go and [challenge] somebody stro­nger and more powerful,” said Sara Malkani, a Karachi-based lawyer working on reproductive healthcare.

The outdated penalties for the contravention of the law are in desperate need of an upgrade and reflect the casual approach of the state towards the law. A 2010 report by the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan noted that the “…sums mentioned as fine i.e. rupees 500[clause 11] is too inadequate to deter an offender from committing a break of the law”.

“Most of these laws were drafted in times when it was hard to imagine women working in the public sphere,” Dr Javaid Iqbal Gill, a representative of the Labour Departm­ent, noted at an event in 2014.

The Maternity Benefit Ordinance also states that it is unlawful for an employer to dismiss a woman during her pregnancy period.

But despite the legislation, many workplaces do not have a concrete policy at all and appear to be either violating the law altogether or making calls on an individual basis.

Several mothers also feel that they had to “prove their worth” to employers during a pregnancy.

A woman employed as a project engineer in Karachi for a steel group recalls how harshly she was treated when she broke the news of her pregnancy at her former workplace back in 2013.

Sara* submitted a maternity leave application, confident of a favourable response as she had been employed there for five years. The response — a letter of termination.

“I was the first-ever woman empl­o­yee to get [pregnant] and apparently [they had no maternity leave policy],” she explained.

Progressive workplaces

Although several companies have internalised lax approaches towards maternity policies, a handful of large companies operating in Pakis­tan have managed to successfully enforce rules that make it possible for women to thrive professionally.

Two years ago, when Faiza Immad walked in for her interview — visibly pregnant — at Telenor Pakistan, she had considerable doubts on her prospects of securing the job.

“Usually employers discourage bringing on board a candidate when they discover that she is expecting and is therefore set to take a break soon,” she told Dawn.com.

But Ms Immad, who is now working for HR at Telenor, got the job.Telenor, an international company operating in markets across Europe and Asia, said its maternity leave policy had undergone changes over the years and since September 2015, the telecommunications company has a policy which allows female employees globally to take salaried leave for six months during the maternity period.

Another multinational to have successfully incorporated a six-month leave policy is Unilever.

“I worked till the last week of my pregnancy as I was given support and enjoyed the work I was doing. Returning to work post maternity leave was exciting and I had a seamless transition,” said employee Sarah Karamatullah.

Textile brand Khaadi, too, strives to maintain an environment that is conducive to working mothers.

Khaadi provides 12 weeks paid maternity leave to employees.

The company’s head office employs about 275 staffers, 30 per cent of whom are women.

“I had a very difficult pregnancy and was required to be on bed rest relatively early on. I stopped working at Khaadi in January 2015 and re-joined in September the same year,” recalled Sharmin Raza, head of HR at the design firm.

For these companies enforcing the policy means systems are in place to share the workload. Simil­arly, many larger NGOs also give three months paid leave, “as they are externally and internally audited for their gender policies,” said Saima Munir, a programme manager with the Aurat Foundation.

While it is worth noting that the government sector has a very small percentage of women in civil service (almost 10pc according to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2015-2016), they follow the state-approved maternity leave policy.

The Civil Servants Rules state that maternity leave is admissible to a female civil servant on “full pay for up to three months”.

Since government jobs also offer health benefits, unlike many of their private counterparts, the employers also foot hospital bills.

“The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has a policy of giving three-month paid leave to women employees,” Robina Riaz, deputy secretary women development, told Dawn.com.

Support post childbirth

Masooma*, a lawyer who worked at Suparco, shared a rare pleasant experience of a supportive employer.

“Suparco had a lovely day-care centre for kids. They even ran a shuttle during tea break and lunch times from the main building to the centre, so mothers could visit their kids. There was a dad who used to drop off his toddler in the mornings, since his wife was in med school,” she said.

However, she maintained the situation would have been starkly different at a law firm. According to our survey, 66.4pc of respondents find their offices unsupportive of staffers bringing their children to work, while 77.3pc said that their offices do not offer day-care facilities.

Yet larger companies are making room for more progressive policies.

“Upon my return, an office was converted into a nursing room for me while our new nursery was under construction and the support I recei­ved to balance life as a new working mother was par none,” said Ms Raza.

Telenor too provides additional support to employees once the baby is born, including work-from-home arr­a­n­g­ements and flexible working hou­rs along with in-house day-care facilities.

Unilever also provides on-site day-care. The day-care centre allows parents to bring their new-borns and young children (of up to six years) to work. It comes equipped with cameras so parents can monitor their children on laptops through specialised software accessible only to them.

In addition to the Karachi head office, Unilever has also recently started a day-care at its Rahim Yar Khan factory.

“It’s a question of changing workplace culture and changing mindsets. I think people need to get more comfortable [with] the idea that women are in the workforce, and they are here stay,” said Ms Malkani.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Additional reporting by Munnazzah Raza, Zainab Shumail in Islamabad and Sadia Qasim Shah in Peshawar.

To read more please visit www.dawn.com

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2017