In defence of skiving
Monday 30th August 2004
Absenteeism wasn't invented at British Airways; the workers
have been at it for centuries. And quite right too. Throw a sickie
and get a life, urges Tom Hodgkinson.
It is one of those media standbys. You can almost predict its
appearance every six months or so. Here it comes again - the Confederation
of British Industry, all over the Today programme and the broadsheets
with a guilt-inducing attack on the British worker and his or
her propensity for throwing sickies. And there is always that
figure, far too big to under- stand, the annual "cost to
British industry" of absenteeism. The latest of these is
£11.5bn. According to various surveys, the British worker
takes on average eight days off sick per year. Those working in
the public sector call in sick more often than those working in
the private sector. Prison officers, civil servants, police and
nurses tend to take the most days off sick, the surveys say. They
go for 12 or 13.
The subtext of these reports is: come on, guys. Pull your weight.
You're not really, ill, are you? You're letting down the team.
It's unpatriotic. While pretending to be objective and caring,
they make it into a moral issue. I remember hearing a joyless
spokesperson from the CBI on the radio smugly observing: "Isn't
it funny how workers' sick days so often coincide with major sporting
The response of big companies to this £11.5bn annual loss
varies. As it's pretty obvious that happy workers would not skive
off so much, most bleat some guff about introducing flexible working
practices or improving conditions in some way. They talk about
caring for staff when it is really only profits and share prices
that interest them. Just have a look at the comments from giant
companies on the Work Foundation's website for examples of hilarious
corporate bullshit. You will see Tesco, Lloyds TSB and others
bandying about such phrases as "a focus on people",
"innovation management" and "holistic approach".
What the companies then actually do is introduce unbelievably
draconian measures to penalise offenders. Tesco, which seems to
be one of the most profitable companies in the world, announced
in May that it was to test new schemes for penalising skiving
workers. The idea was to refuse to give sick pay for the first
three days of a staff member's illness. Such breathtaking brutality
from a company that makes £4.4m profit per day can be explained
only as a PR move to encourage the share price further upward.
Or perhaps Tesco's board members agreed over lunch that their
overpaid shelf-stackers and checkout girls were having it too
easy. They're living the life of Riley, that lot, the directors
opine as they stuff foie gras and claret down their gullets. Why
the hell should our shareholders pay for their bloody skiving?
British Airways also recently became extremely worried by absentee
rates and their effect on its share price. Seventeen sick days
per year is the average for a BA employee. To me, this is a pretty
obvious sign that BA is a bad employer. Stress and overwork will
lead to illness and depression. But the airline's response the
other day, as part of a strike-averting deal with the union, was
to announce "robust" new measures to reduce sick leave.
The effect of withholding sick pay for the first three days will
be that workers will struggle in to work with colds and flu, damaging
their own health, damaging the health of the workers around them,
and perhaps damaging the health of the customer. They will be
helped in this by pain-concealers such as Lemsip, which, in the
words of the advertising, is "medicine for hard-working heroes".
The idea is that you soldier on and work through it. Do not, whatever
you do, let illness get in the way of being exploited by your
The prejudice against illness and taking days off could become
critical. I understand that in the United States, which does not
have the healthy skiving tradition of the UK, the culture is even
worse. Illness is for wimps. The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich,
in her book Nickel and Dimed , reports the attitude to absence
through illness of one cleaning firm boss: "Now if I get
a migraine I just pop two Excedrins and work through it."
Yet even if we do lose £11.5bn a year to absenteeism, who
cares? I refuse to feel sorry for these gigantic corporations.
My lack of pity is motivated by a figure that tends not to get
such widespread coverage on the Today programme and in our national
newspapers as the one that the CBI releases. It reflects instead
the amount of unpaid overtime that the British worker puts in
today, and is released by the Trades Union Congress.
Last year, says the TUC, the figure for unpaid overtime amounted
to £23bn. OK, it's still one of those figures that is so
large as to be unreal. But even I can do simple maths and deduct
money lost to sickness from money gained through unpaid overtime
and conclude that, in the battle between capital and labour, capital
makes a clean profit of £11.5bn a year. If I were the CBI,
therefore, I would keep quiet and thank my lucky stars that so
many workers are doing so much for so little.
The TUC, by the way, deserves lots of credit for sensibly campaigning
for a change away from a long-hours culture and towards what it
calls a "work-smart" culture, in which people finish
the work in the time available. It has launched a campaign encouraging
people to work their proper hours and not to sit there staring
at a screen, making themselves ill and tired.
Skiving is nothing new. In the centuries-long battle between
industry and idleness, labourers have always resisted regular
hours and overwork. In the 17th century, the irregular working
week was the norm and Monday was sacrosanct. It was an unofficial
day off. It was to be spent drinking with friends. This custom
was called Saint Monday. Here is one observer writing in 1681:
"The weavers, 'tis common with them to be drunk on Monday,
have their head-ache on Tuesday, and their tools out of order
on Wednesday. As for the shoemakers, they'll rather be hanged
than not remember St Crispin on a Monday."Then the industrial
revolution came along and imposed strict working schedules on
the peasants. But according to E P Thompson, Saint Monday was
still widely honoured throughout the 18th, 19th and even the 20th
centuries. A contemporary moralist complained of London saddlers
in 1811 that "we see Saint Monday so religiously kept in
this great city . . . in general followed by a Saint Tuesday also".
Absenteeism is merely the modern word for Saint Monday.
Firms are told by consultants that there are simple ways to deal
with absenteeism. The healthcare consultancy IHC recently produced
a report which recommended that firms hire an in-house GP and
masseurs and things like that. Some companies have introduced
things called duvet days, a rather ugly term for the notion that
each employee is given, say, six days a year when he or she can
call in and take the day off without explanation.
This is all well and good. Maybe it is possible for companies
to make little changes and improve conditions for their workers,
but to me, it is obvious that we take days off because we don't
like working. Given the choice between lying in bed watching old
films and dozing all day, or doing six hours non-stop at a supermarket
checkout for £6 an hour, I know which I would choose.
No, a bit of massage won't deal with the real problem, which
is that most jobs - my research suggests nine out of ten - rob
us of our spirit and we don't like them. We only do them for the
money, and skiving off is a way of reclaiming some of our own
time. You might as well ask a lion to stop killing antelopes as
ask capitalists to care for their employees. Absenteeism, therefore,
is a justifiable reaction to an inhuman and enslaving system of
As for what can be done about it, who knows? We need a revolution.
The TUC is right that cultural change is required. I would campaign,
however, for something far more radical - bringing back Saint
Monday by introducing the four-day week, for instance. I would
also argue for many more bank holidays. In the end, though, top-down
solutions by interfering do-gooders never work. What we need is
for all of us to tell our employers that if you want us to work
in your crummy shops, factories, warehouses and offices, then
you are going to have to improve wages and conditions a hell of
a lot. We want £10 an hour and four-hour shifts. If that's
not forthcoming, I'm going to live in a caravan, grow turnips
and stare at the sky all day.