Thursday, October 14, 2004

Forget the tests, bottles are for holding the wine

NZ: Restaurateurs don't have the best of reputations when it comes to staff relations, and plans to humiliate employees by making them pee in a bottle to check for drug use are hardly going to improve things.

At the very least I would have expected one of the bosses to have set an example and volunteered to go first. After all, the last story I read involving the evils of drugs in restaurants concerned not a lowly wait-person, but top Auckland restaurateur Philip Sturm's appeal against his conviction for stupefying young male customers with drugs, then having his evil way with them.

Of course there's something richly ironic about the Restaurant Association chief executive, Neville Waldren, who represents purveyors of dangerous drugs like alcohol and tobacco, coming on all sanctimonious because the hired help might get their jollies in other ways.

No doubt there is a nationwide problem with the drug P (methamphetamine). But claiming the answer is to test the urine of all hospitality workers is about as daft as America's decision to finger-print transit passengers like New Zealand MP Keith Locke at Los Angeles Airport to stop terrorists flying planes into the sides of New York buildings.

What is happening is another attempt by Big Brother to pry into our private lives. It should be nipped in the bud. A good start would be a customer boycott of any restaurant that tries to introduce it.

Questions also need to be asked about the touting for business by the Government-owned Institute of Environmental Science and Research, which provided the alarmist statistics being used by Mr Waldren to justify the testing, and is to be the testing agency.

Where ESR gets the figure that 40 per cent of the workforce has tried illegal drugs at least once over the past 12 months is anyone's guess.

It's perhaps worth recalling that a year ago, an ESR scientist told the Employment Court considering Air New Zealand's plan to drug test workers that drugs were found in 22 per cent of urine samples of randomly selected workers at 50 firms over two years.

A few days later, she said the true figure was only 9 per cent. For all I know, ESR has sales staff on the road knocking at every industry in the Yellow Pages with its scaremongery. They might even be with my editor as I write this, trying to convince him of the dangers of substance-crazed columnists in charge of keyboards.

In times past, I've worked on papers when, on occasion, several of the news staff would have failed a snap breathalyser test, and a damn fine product we turned out too. These days, a test on me would find nothing more incriminating than the remnants of the previous night's medicinal red wine or three.

But they wouldn't, because I would refuse to take the test. Perhaps if I drove a jumbo jet or a Stagecoach bus, I could accept the safety rationale behind random drug testing.

But driving a desk, as I do, or pouring a glass of wine, as hospitality staff do, then forget it. What's in my urine is my business, not my boss's and certainly not that of Big Brother ESR, which also maintains the police DNA databases.

I'm in good company. In essence, my stand is what the Employment Court ruled this year in the Air New Zealand case. Random drug testing of employees was unacceptable except in "safety sensitive" situations.

It's not as though the testing is very accurate in tracking down the drug users. Alcohol disappears from the system within 24 hours. P, cocaine and LSD last from one to five days. Marijuana, the most benign of the drugs, lingers longest, up to 10 days for casual users and up to four weeks for regulars.

ESR would be a more useful public servant if, instead of touting miracle cures, it concentrated on its crime fighting activities.

We read of drug trials being delayed for months because ESR hasn't the staff to analyse the evidence. That's what they should be doing, not holding bottles for waiters to pee into.

By Brian Rudman posted 14 October 04


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