Sunday, July 1, 2012

Drug testing job seekers on the benefit---wrong or about time?

The Government announced today that they are seeking to pass a law whereby job seekers on a benefit must pass a drug test in order to keep their benefits. This has raised the ire of some opposition politicians. Ok, let’s look at the proposal in a balanced manner.
For those of us already in the workforce, there are already quite a lot of rules and practices around drug-testing. We don’t yet have it in education, except of course for the kids. We do have it in many work places where drug-taking is seen as an obvious impediment to production and work safety. Let’s face it; no one wants a pilot under the influence of---well--- anything.
There are other obvious jobs where any level of drug or alcohol use works directly against safe working places and not many of us would argue against such policies. Of course those partaking in the odd toke or two will argue otherwise. They are the same individuals who say that their driving is not affected by their ‘habits.’ Yeah right!
There is a dual pathway operating here. Firstly there are those who would seek a liberalization of the laws around some drug intake, pot for instance. There is even a political party in New Zealand that scored more votes than one of the political parties allied to the present government. The liberalization argument is not going to go away.
There is the other side of the argument, whereby increased pressure is coming on many employers to make their work-places drug free. Those employers take a punitive approach and try to stem the flow of drug use in their organizations by blocking the employment of such workers at the point of entry--- that is, take a drug test and if you fail--- no job. They also reserve the right to ask for random drug-testing, with the same result. Very few employers take an ‘educational approach.’
What then do we make of the Governments latest policy statement? Perhaps they are watching the Conservatives in Britain who are testing the waters with a vast range of possible ‘welfare reforms,’ all aimed at cutting the deficit in government accounts. Paula Bennett has once again announced that beneficiaries will lose their payments if they fail drug tests. The Labour Party’s spokesperson (Jacinda Ardern) has opposed such actions, saying that it is education that is needed rather than the big stick. Whilst I have some sympathy for such statements, one has to say that despite the plethora of programmes, the numbers of those taking drugs has not noticeably diminished.
School based programmes range from the effective to ones that are no more than ‘preaching to a captive audience.’ We all know that such approaches do not work on teenagers. The real world of real consequences may not either. We have to look at those taking drugs a little more closely.
If you have been out of work for medium to long term, a certain malaise enters your spirit. We have several generations within some families where unemployment and drug and alcohol use is endemic. This is the hardest group to help and I suspect the ones who will be the target for the new laws.
 I see numerous examples of students who choose to pull back from drug taking and that is based on the effective programs they have been enrolled in (The Stand UP Programme, for example) and other students who simply see the light and change. However, there are many who continue down the pathway to unemployment and educational failure. Sadly, this group is going to make up the statistics of those who survive in the ‘black economy,’ on the fringes of society and in our prisons. Ms Bennett’s announcement will hardly register. Unless she accompanies her policies with a vast increase in resources to encourage these people to turn away from drugs, then we will see a growing group of our citizens cast onto the rubbish dumps of society.
Take yet another angle of the argument. Would-be employers often cringe when faced with employing people thrust upon them by WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand). Individuals on benefits are often ‘encouraged to seek employment or face losing their payments. This is the group that MS Bennett is targeting. Some have not worked for many years and in the case of school leavers, have little or no employment history. Some may have had support from ‘job seeker employment programmes,’ and they would be aware of the requirement to be drug-free. Others fall into the category of being ‘unwilling to work’ they come with a requirement form WINZ to be employed for at least 30 hours per week. The pay they receive is generally at the ‘minimum wage level, one that is often not a great deal more than the benefits they were receiving on welfare.
These individuals have become disinsentivised to work. They see no reason to get up early, often traveling long distances to work, for little return. They bring an attitude that employers find difficult to manage. If you add in the possibility of drug-taking then you can see why many employers would support the Government’s latest announcement. It will preclude many of the prospective employees from even passing step one on the road to employment.
What I have described is somewhat unpalatable and an issue that many would rather ignore. It is in the too-hard basket for many politicians and represents something far deeper about what is wrong with our society. It highlights that position so many of our people at the bottom end of economic activity inhabit. Despair leads to drug-use. Drug-use leads to marginalization--- the vicious cycle continues and politicians prevaricate.
Where to with MS Bennett’s proposals? ---- The attitude she exemplifies is that ‘we have to try something’ but it will not improve the situation for those at the bottom of the pile. Yes, she will present those who have ‘made it’ and good on them, but are we just ‘fiddling while Rome burns?’