Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou said on Tuesday her ministry would support the cancer survivor who was fired by her employer days after returning to work from long-term sick leave.
Speaking to public broadcaster CyBC, Emilianidou said news of the incident had saddened her. She was referring to the case of a recovered cancer patient Maria Iliofotou which became widely known after she posted her story on her social media account.
Iliofotou, who published an open letter on social media on Tuesday, which is translated below had been on sick leave for a year after being treated for breast cancer – including a mastectomy, three chemotherapy cycles, and radiotherapy. She was sacked by her employer last week apparently with no warning, days after returning to work. She was told that the company had hired other staff to do her job during her long absence.
The employment termination letter Ilioftou received, published by Sigmalive, said that her employer as a ‘goodwill gesture’ was willing to pay her eight weeks advance warning plus 15 1/2 weeks compensation.
The case attracted widespread public condemnation and strong reactions from MPs and non-governmental organisations and prompted her former employers, VHP Varnavas Hadjipanayis Ltd, to admit they had handled the case “poorly”. They offered Ilioftou the maximum compensation allowed under the relevant legislation, “which amounts to two years’ full pay plus advance warning”.
“I know the company recognised their mistake. I just want to say that we, as the labour ministry, we will provide (to the woman) every possible support,” Emilianidou said.
She added that her ministry would review existing legislation, since it does not provide for the necessary support for such cases “to avoid the repetition of such incidents”, Emilianidou said.
The chairwoman of PASYKAF (Cyprus Association of Cancer Patients and Friends), Anna Achileoudi, had said that there were other similar cases but that women were usually reluctant to go public.
Following the publicity Ilioftou’s story received, the Employers and Industrialists Federation (OEV) on Tuesday urged all of its members to respect cases of sick employees with due sensitivity and to respect their legal and human rights.
It called on all those employers facing relevant cases, to contact its labour relations and social policy department to receive “proper information and guidance”.
“The aim is the treatment of sick employees with full respect for their legal, contractual, and human rights while at the same time addressing the operational needs of the companies,” the OEV announcement said.
As regards the specific case, OEV said it was “impossible to draw firm conclusions as to the facts if both sides are not heard on the matter”.
Managing absence cases from work due to illness, it added, was a complicated and sensitive process and required the consideration of a great number of parameters such as the severity of the health problems, the duration of absence and the time needed for full recovery.
It should also be taken under consideration, the employees’ years of service, their position, the possibility of their temporary replacement, and the possibility of temporarily assigning alternative-milder tasks to them until full recovery, it said.
It added that each case should be handled individually.
“Despite the complexity of the issue, legislation and case law provide sufficient guidance for similar cases to be handled not only legally, but also ethically correct,” OEV said. “Without pre-judging anything in relation with this case,” it said, the vast majority of employers have over time showed they follow “the right approach” when cases arise concerning workers with health problems.
Iliofotou: we won a battle but not the war
Following the support she received from the public, Maria Ilioftou, in an open letter published in the media, called for a change in the existing legislation to avoid similar incidents from occurring in the future.
“Dear friends”, the letter said, “my cry, along with your own brought the desired results for me, my husband and our two daughters. Considering the conditions of my unfair dismissal, my primary goal was neither to go back to work nor to simply get some compensation”.
“My goal was to ask for your help so that the power of your voice to help so that I am the last patient to lose his or her job for illness-related reasons, and my experience marks a fresh start for the rights of cancer patients in their workplace”.
She added that after the public apology she received from her former employer and his offer for the maximum compensation provided by law, this had been achieved.
“And it was achieved only with your help and public outcry. We won a battle but not the war,” Ilioftou said. “Now we must all demand a change in legislation to ensure more deterrents so that in the future it will be even more difficult for similar incidents to occur”.
“The struggle for life is not a shame. Together we can support and influence this effort. Solutions exist and are possible if we all fight together and if we dare to assert our rights. We can! I can!”.