Sick of work? Buy a doctor's note
Hung over and want to stay in bed? Missed a deadline for a university assignment? Mancane and his colleagues in Katlehong may be able to help you.
Between Vlei and Ngwenya streets in the Maphanga district of Katlehong on the East Rand, behind a busy BP garage, these businesspeople sell authentic hospital certificates to employees at a rate of R80 a day (or at a bulk discount of R200 for five days, or R600 for three weeks).
Responding to a tip-off, amaBhungane found two separate groups of young entrepreneurs competing with each other to offer the same service. They were sitting on crates on the pavement, sipping beer and chatting.
Mancane, holding a bottle in one hand, whistled and made a hand signal with the other to symbolise writing. “If you’re here for a doctor’s note, this is the right place,” he said. “Give us your name and wait here.”
When we indicated we were interested, he asked the desired period of absence and the medical condition. Told that the problem was a headache, he wrote down “migraine”.
One of the men disappeared between the shops and minutes later returned with an official form stamped by Natalspruit Hospital, serial number L380896, signing the ailing journalist off work from January 6 to 13. This was clearly a thriving business – three other clients were waiting for certificates.
Busiest days are Fridays and Mondays
Mancane proudly told amaBhungane that he served at least 10 clients a day, with the busiest days being Fridays and Mondays. “We even get university students coming here if they’ve missed a test or they’re late with an assignment.”
A woman who identified herself as Thandi, who lives in Vlei Street, said that she and some of her co-workers have long been clients. She said that the business had been operating for more than five years and was well known in the area.
But in some quarters the scam seems to be wearing thin. “My managers noticed that the notes are fake,” Thandi said. “Now they investigate them, especially those from Natalspruit.”
Others who were interviewed admitted the business was illegal but a good resource in an emergency.
Fake note is authentic, says CEO’s secretary
At the Natalspruit Hospital, which has now shifted to Vosloorus 15km away, an administrator told amaBhungane that our form might be fake because writing appeared over the stamp, rather than the other way round, and the stamp appeared on the printed space, rather than at the bottom.
A clerk pointed out that the patient number did not exist. But the secretary in the office of the hospital’s chief executive, Dr Patricia Africa, confirmed that the form was authentic.
“The hospital uses the same note for all patients and the fact that it has a stamp on it shows that it is from the hospital,” she said, taking out a book of sick notes identical to the one bought on the street.
Prince Hamnca, head of communications at the Gauteng health department, said the department was aware of the Katlehong business and that surrounding companies had taken to visiting the hospital to verify the authenticity of sick notes.
“The matter has been reported to the police … Fighting fraud and corruption is high on our agenda,” he said. Katlehong police spokesperson Captain Mega Ndobe said he knew nothing about medical certificate fraud.
“A person who has an illegal sick note should go the police and report the evidence,” Ndobe said “We can’t just go to the streets and arrest without a case being opened.”
Absenteeism takes a toll on company health
The South African economy loses between R12-billion and R16-billion through illness-related absenteeism from work, according to Occupational Care South Africa (Ocsa) and Statistics South Africa – and more than 40% of sick notes are handed out without a diagnosis.
Ocsa, a private workplace health and wellness management company, says that without active management a single day’s absence can cost a company an amount equivalent to three days’ salary.
It says that on average between 15% and 30% of staff are absent on any given day. But it adds that two-thirds of employees who fail to show up at work are not actually physically ill.
Ocsa data suggests that a high percentage of employees appear to be faking illness, pointing to a deeper problem of unhappiness or inability to cope at work. The most common cause of lost work time is sleep disorder, it says, linked to “modern lifestyle issues which include too much light from electronic devices before bedtime”.
But offsetting this is the fact that many workers report to work when they are genuinely ill. An online survey conducted last year among 1900 working men and women across South Africa found that eight out of 10 of the participants would go to work “even though they’re as sick as a dog”.
A survey by company Pharma Dynamics supported this, quoting half of the respondents as saying “they just can’t afford to take a day off work due to mounting workloads”.
A third argued that they are too essential to the business operation to take a leave of absence, and a further 12% go into work sick hoping they will be sent home by the boss. – Pharie Sefali
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.