Monday, 2 July 2012

Proposed drug testing of beneficiaries

New Zealand's present government doesn't often come up with an idea to gladden my instinctively left-leaning heart, but the recent proposal to require recipients of the unemployment benefit to be drug-free is an exception. Effectively there are only four prerequisites to receiving this benefit, commonly called the dole. Two relate to citizenship and residency, one to age and the other requirement is that "you must be available for, and looking for full time work".

In this country, employers have a legal responsibility to maintain a safe workplace. A workplace cannot be safe when it employs people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, therefore it is usual and responsible practice for employers to require a clear drug test prior to hiring a new employee. It is reportedly common in some industries for job applicants to be rejected because of their failure to pass such a test. In fact, I have seen clear evidence of this in my own experience. Not many years ago I found myself out of work and applied for one of a number of unskilled positions at a meat processing plant. Along with seven other applicants I was promised employment, conditional upon my attending a half day orientation programme including a drug test. Of the eight, only two of us passed the drug test and were subsequently hired. The other six made no secret of their relief at not having to forgo their unemployment benefit. Work & Income NZ requires unemployment beneficiaries to provide evidence that they are actively seeking paid employment. Many of them evidently set out to fail these tests in order to avoid losing their benefit entitlement.

New Zealand has a number of benefits available to those who need help for one legitimate reason or another, including sickness benefit and domestic purposes benefit. I don't advocate drug testing for recipients of those or any other benefits, because the unemployment benefit is the only one that is conditional upon the recipient being "available for, and looking for full time work". I fail to see how genuine jobseekers would not abstain from taking illicit drugs when they are well aware of those drugs rendering them unavailable for paid employment.

Mr Key and Mr English, much as it pains me to say so, I support you on this one, but only insofar as it applies to the unemployment (jobseeker) benefit. Having said that, I don't trust you not to use it as the thin edge of the wedge in extending the testing to recipients of other benefits.

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