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Sharks in the Water and Out

eye on the news

Sharks in the Water and Out

On the abuses of “work-related stress” March 26, 2013

Earlier this month, British newspapers reported the story of Paul Marshallsea, a Welshman who, while on a two-month Australian holiday with his wife, wrestled a six-foot shark to prevent it from attacking children in the water. Marshallsea happened to be filmed while doing so, and the pictures went around the world. He was proclaimed a hero.

Unfortunately for him, the pictures also reached Wales. He and his wife were supposed to be on sick leave at the time with “work-related stress,” and his heroics didn’t impress his employers: they sacked him, on the not-unreasonable grounds that if he could travel to Australia and wrestle with a shark, he could probably have made it into work. Moreover, photographs of the couple suggested that they were having the holiday of a lifetime, rather than merely recuperating from serious illness.

Under the best circumstances, “work-related stress” is a slippery concept, almost an invitation to fraud. And here the context is important. Marshallsea lives in Merthyr Tydfil, long known as the sick-note capital of Britain. Up to a fifth of its people of working age receive a certificate of sickness from doctors sympathetic to the plight of the unemployed. (The sick get higher state benefits than the merely unemployed.) There is thus almost a presumption of sickness in Merthyr, once a prosperous industrial town. Unemployment is virtually a hereditary condition, having been passed down to the third generation. Were it not for the public sector, unemployment in Merthyr would be nearly 100 percent.

The work that caused the Marshallseas so much stress was with a so-called charity—the Pant and Dowlais Boys & Girls Club, for whom they had worked for ten years. The object of the club is to help Merthyr Tydfil’s boys and girls develop their physical, mental, and spiritual capacities through leisure activities. This included providing them with a disco.

The largest single donor to the “charity” last year was the Welsh government (more than 20 percent); the year before, it was the Merthyr Tydfil Council (more than 40 percent). In Britain, the distinction between charity and government has been blurred to the point of eradication by the fact that government, local or national, is often the largest contributor to charities—sometimes, indeed, almost the only one. And he who pays the piper calls the tune.

The principal beneficiaries of charities often seem to be their employees. Staff costs of the Pant and Dowlais Boys & Girls Club last year amounted to 63 percent of the club’s income. It is likely that the Marshallseas were well-paid; Australia is one of the most expensive countries in the world, and two-month holidays there, even when staying with friends, as were the Marshallseas, don’t come cheap. Sick leave is fully paid, so the charity funded the couple’s holiday.

The story illustrates a fundamental truth about contemporary Britain: it is now a sink of corruption, moral, intellectual, and financial, all of it perfectly legal.

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