It is time to solve once and for all the disputes involving public lifeguards
The abuse of the sick leave system as a form of industrial action over working conditions is unacceptable, and points to deeper problems
Abuse of sick leave entitlements is unacceptable. It is more so when management seemingly turns a blind eye to it even when public services are regularly disrupted as a result. The management of public lifeguards is a case in point. The problem was put into perspective in a recent probe by the Ombudsman. It was found that an increasing trend of abuse has seen beaches and swimming pools closed more often due to manpower shortages.
The number of lifeguards suspected of faking illness to skip work has jumped from four in 2011 to 57 last year.
In response, a lifeguard union has pleaded for public understanding, saying sick leave is part of its industrial action to push for better working conditions. But the irregularities exposed by the watchdog shows more than that. In one extreme case, a lifeguard took 237 days of sick leave in the past year, taking the total number to 537 days in his six years of service.
The situation was not helped when the Leisure and Cultural Services Department adopted an exceptionally tolerant approach towards sick leave. The department only demanded medical certificates when an employee took nine sick days or more in three months, instead of five days in three months under the civil service rule. Separately, lifeguards late for duty would only have their time off deducted without further warning or punishment, raising questions over conduct and discipline.
Lifeguards taking mass sick leave to strike for better pay and working conditions has almost become an annual ritual. But the Ombudsman’s report is unlikely to win them sympathy. Equally lamentable is the lax approach towards indiscipline and misconduct. It amounts to a culture of condonement, which arguably aggravates the problem.
The department needs to stamp out the abuse. More importantly, it should take the opportunity to resolve the staffing disputes, such as further exploring the option of outsourcing lifeguards in the long run.