Sickening the country with sick leave

Time has come for the medical profession to put its act together and ensure that doctors refrain from being willing and compliant accomplices to this sickening abuse.

Half of Air Malta’s pilots reported sick in one day with the ensuing havoc in the airline’s scheduled flights.
Half of Air Malta’s pilots reported sick in one day with the ensuing havoc in the airline’s scheduled flights.

I am sure that nobody believes that all the Air Malta pilots who reported sick on the same day last week were genuinely sick! Nobody believes, either, that the large number of pilots reporting sick on the same day was just a coincidence and not an orchestrated exercise.

Half of Air Malta's pilots reported sick in one day with the ensuing havoc in the airline's scheduled flights affecting more than two thousand passengers and costing the airline more than half a million euro.

The stance adopted in the circumstances by the trade union representing the airline's pilots (ALPA), was, to say the least, curious. It denied any foul play on its part and insisted that all this was the result of the airline's mismanagement of its human resources, considering that the number of flights had increased while the number of pilots had decreased. However there is no denying that last month the ALPA had registered an industrial dispute with Air Malta over the cancellation of scheduled leave.

The Malta Employers Association described what had happened as 'unacceptable' and asked whether Air Malta was facing an outbreak of a disease or an unofficial industrial action. More to the point, it asked whether 'the real ailment is an allergy to the civilised practice of resolving industrial disputes through proper channels without jeopardising the running of the enterprise'.

It could be argued that the pilots decided to send a message to their employer. Some will probably maintain that the message was that the present pilot complement - with its demanding roster of duties - is overstretched and cannot survive for long. But probably the real message was: whenever we want, we can strangle you!

If the sudden spurt of sick leave was a conscious ploy by the pilots to emphasise what they consider to be the airline's human resources mismanagement situation, than there is no doubt that the right for sick leave has been abused. And this is wrong, however right the pilots may be in their dispute with Air Malta.

Without entering into the merits of the existing industrial dispute between Air Malta and ALPA, I think that this incident should be a wake-up call on the blatant abuse of sick leave in our country and its corresponding corollary: the irresponsible issue of medical certificates on spurious grounds generally.

It is a well-known fact - confirmed by official statistics - that employees in the public sector avail themselves of their sick leave entitlement to a much larger extent than employees in the private sector. It seems that some bacteria tend to choose their victims according to their employer!

Many public sector employees are known to take 'pains' so as to ensure that they avail themselves of all the number of sick leave days for which they are entitled to be given full pay; with many planning ahead their sick leave 'schedule' for the whole year. Some organise their 'sick leave' to fit in with the bird-shooting season; or with their long weekend breaks; or with their plans for doing some overdue maintenance work at home. Some even utilise it to carry out some extra part-time undeclared work with private owners.

This is an acknowledged state of affairs. So much so, that Unions have been pushing the bizarre idea that employees who do not claim any sick leave should be entitled to a bonus - an idea that has even found its way in some collective agreements.

Many might think that the very idea that one is rewarded for not being dishonest is absurd, but this is the result of the absurd notion that sick leave entitlement is a form of leave for which an employee has a sacrosanct right, irrespective of whether one is really sick or not. This abuse is backed by medical certificates issued by doctors who should know better.

The private sector and a number of State-owned entities outside the mainstream civil service have had to resort to employing their own doctors to check on workers reporting sick. There have been complaints that these doctors err on the employer's side, at the expense of the real interests of the employee, and some of these complaints could well be justified. The sad truth is that this unofficial tug-of-war between the employee's doctor and the employer's doctor is a disgrace that the medical profession does not bother to do anything about. Both doctors earn their fee, anyway.

Another area where dubious medical certificates continually crop up is in the education sector, where such certificates are dished out for pupils who miss school. Children of school age who are abusively exploited in the family business or kept at home to help with the housework are the better candidates for this misuse of medical certificates. There are other cases that are even worse, with teenagers who refuse to go to school being abetted by their parents who do not think it twice to go to their family doctor and get a certificate in order to 'satisfy' the school authorities. There is a pattern of such certificates with their number being inversely proportional to the degree of economic depression in the area where the teenagers come from.

Short-sighted parents abetting their truant children also know that getting hold of a medical certificate will avoid their being charged with not sending their children to school. The school authorities are in an even worse position than employers, as they can hardly employ doctors to check whether children not turning up at school are genuinely sick or not. Recourse to social workers should, perhaps, be sought more often - but then these are obviously overstretched in economically depressed areas.

Medical certificates that cannot be described as anything but false are leading to the country losing so much money, in the case of their abuse by employees to get leave for which they have no right, and are also leading to an exacerbation of social problems, in the case of their being used abusively by parents who do not send their children to school.

I think that the time has come for the medical profession to put its act together and ensure that doctors refrain from being willing and compliant accomplices to this sickening abuse.

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"take 'pains' so as to ensure that they avail themselves of all the number of sick leave days for which they are entitled to be given full pay; with many planning ahead their sick leave 'schedule' for the whole year." <<>> So very, very true! But, dear ex-PN Minister, what did your administration do about it? And what is the present administration doing about this grave "sickness" cancer eating away from within at our national economy?