The British disease that should have been tackled long ago

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Another bank holiday weekend is in the offing and, with it, the all too predictable blackmail by certain trade unions intent on maximising their leverage with threats to inconvenience the holidaying public. Hardly had staff at British Airways announced their initial strike intentions two weeks ago, than the RMT union at Eurostar (one alternative to at least some of BA's destinations) decided to enter the fray.

Another bank holiday weekend is in the offing and, with it, the all too predictable blackmail by certain trade unions intent on maximising their leverage with threats to inconvenience the holidaying public. Hardly had staff at British Airways announced their initial strike intentions two weeks ago, than the RMT union at Eurostar (one alternative to at least some of BA's destinations) decided to enter the fray.

However these disputes are resolved, what we are seeing here is not just the face of irresponsible trade unionism. That certain unions are in a position to exert such leverage so predictably as a bank holiday approaches - in the case of British Airways, for what seems the umpteenth time - represents a serious failure of management. And so far as one of the chief causes of friction at BA is concerned - the question of paid sick leave - it is a failure common to many of Britain's biggest companies; one that employers are only now, rather late in the day, starting to address.

The number of days taken by staff in paid sick leave has risen exponentially over the years. Latest estimates say that sick leave costs the British economy as much as £13bn a year. According to BA, its staff take an average of 17 days off sick annually, compared with a UK average of seven. The company has offered a bonus to staff who take fewer than 16 sick days over two years. The unions, understandably, are resisting any move to link pay and sick leave, arguing that it will penalise those who are really ill.

That some staff are playing the system, however, is beyond doubt. Unplanned absence is a particular problem for the transport and services sectors, where the quality of service directly depends on the requisite number of staff turning up. As any London Underground commuter can confirm, cancellations due to staff shortages mysteriously rise around the time of certain football matches and either side of holiday weekends. No company with a reputation and a bottom line to defend can tolerate such fluctuations.

Large-scale moves to curb the number of days taken as sick leave began with the big supermarket chains. Tesco recently agreed with trade unions to stop paying workers for the first three days they take off sick. Asda also restricts sick pay while offering rewards for low absenteeism that include an extra week's leave. The Royal Mail will enter staff with good attendance records into a draw with cars and holiday vouchers as prizes. The means may differ, but the end is the same: to discourage people calling in sick when they are not.

Sticks and carrots may improve matters, but they are only part of the answer. Workers take unjustified sick leave for a range of reasons that include inflexible arrangements for taking time off, a sense that it hardly matters whether they turn up or not, and a feeling of entitlement - the belief, for instance, that their pay is so low that they "deserve" everything else they can get. The main reason, though, is probably because they can get away with it. Employers should have tackled the problem sooner.

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