Malta: Government rejects employers' proposal to make first day of sick leave unpaid

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The trade unions and government in Malta have rejected calls by the Malta Employers’ Association to minimise the ‘rampant’ abuse of sick leave by making the first day of sick leave unpaid. However, data about public sector sick leave have persuaded the government to conduct a study on the patterns of sick leave.

Background

The Malta Employers’ Association (MEA), in its proposals to the Finance Minister for the 2018 budget, proposed that drastic measures should be taken to combat abuses of the sick leave system, which it claims are rampant.

One of its proposals was to make the first day of sick leave unpaid. This was framed in the context of a belief, widely shared by employers, that sporadic sick leave is taken on days close to the weekend as a means of having more time off. MEA argued that implementing its proposal would discourage this. In a press release issued in August 2017, an MEA spokesperson said:

Many companies are concerned about the increased incidence of sick leave – in particular sporadic sick leave linked to weekends […] The first day of sick leave should be unpaid and treated as a waiting day.

According to a study carried out by the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry in 2013, Monday is the most common day of the week for employees to stay at home on the grounds of illness.

Trade unions reject proposal

The General Workers Union (GWU) stated that it would not accept any downgrading of sick leave conditions, while the Chief Executive Officer of the United Workers’ Union (UĦM) branded the proposal as illegal.

The Malta Union of Teachers (MUT) said the proposal was a backward move, as it was made at a time when the Maltese economy was doing well. MUT stated that it prefers measures focusing on investment in employees, promoting and safeguarding their physical and mental health and safety, and increasing their quality of life in order to tackle issues such as work–life balance and burnout. An MUT spokesperson said, ‘Treating employees with suspicion and increasing monetary burdens for the unlucky ones who fall ill is certainly not the way forward’.

The trade union confederation FORUM stated that there should be no debate about sick leave which was certified by doctors. However, FORUM indicated it was willing to engage in talks to introduce measures that could help reduce the abuse of sick leave.

The Malta Union of Bank Employees (MUBE) stated that the employers’ proposal would definitely not be acceptable.

MEA stands its ground

However, the Director-General of MEA insisted that measures were necessary to curtail the abuse of sick leave, pointing out that other countries, such as Germany, had adopted similar measures where either the company does not pay for the first day of sick leave or it is paid for by the government. The Director-General contends that, in Malta, it seems that an employee who is not genuinely ill has no great difficulty in persuading a doctor to sign a sick leave certificate. Nevertheless, sending company doctors to employees’ homes to check whether their sick leave is genuine may prove expensive, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Acknowledging that employers need to make sure that people are not forced to report to work when they are genuinely sick, the Director-General stated that such cases would have to be looked into and weighed up

Government to study sick leave patterns

The Prime Minister rejected any chance of this MEA proposal being implemented. His terse statement means the proposal would not even feature on the agenda in the talks on possible changes in industrial relations. However, the government did take heed of a statement made by the MEA Director-General that, according to official statistics, public sector employees took three times more sick leave than employees in the private sector. Indeed, in September 2017, it was reported in the Times of Malta that according to a government spokesperson, a study on the sick leave patterns of public service employees was being conducted to identify administrative changes that could be introduced to help reduce sick leave. The Principal Permanent Secretary also acknowledged that the public service was studying sick leave patterns which might require organisational adjustments.

Commentary

Every now and then, MEA highlights the issue of sick leave as it believes that there is rampant abuse of the system. In 2016, it spoke about the Monday Morning Syndrome which refers to the high incidence of sick leave, especially among young workers, after the weekend. Thus, its latest proposal to the Minister of Finance is not merely an impulsive act but possibly another attempt to test opinion. As was expected, the trade unions’ objection to this proposal was forthright and very vocal. The government backed the trade unions and showed no intention of implementing the proposal. However, the statistics about sick leave in the public sector seemed to have jolted it into taking some action. This MEA proposal has perhaps provided a new dimension to the issue of sick leave.

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