Workers at mill win case over drug tests

Last updated 12:58 05/06/2014

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Workers at Carter Holt Harvey's Eves Valley mill have won their case against mass drug testing.

Almost 200 employees at the sawmill near Nelson were forced to have their urine tested after two cannabis plants were found growing on the site.

Some 76 employees of Carter Holt Harvey Limited's Eves Valley Sawmill, who were also members of the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union, complained to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) about the tests.

The authority has found the employees were unjustifiably disadvantaged in being compelled to take the tests, and Carter Holt Harvey breached its duty of good faith to them. The workers are also to be compensated.

"This is a victory for our members, and a victory for common decency and respect," says Ron Angel, EPMU national industry organiser for timber workers.

‘We've been concerned about the whole drug testing regime at Carter Holt Harvey for some time, and clearly our concerns were justified."

He said the union supported good health and safety practice in the workplace. "But drug testing has to be about proving actual impairment at work - not treating workers as guilty until proven innocent."

The union described the company's action as "invasive, unfair drug testing". Carter Holt Harvey declined to comment.

On March 7 last year, the cannabis plants were found growing in the grounds outside the sawmill buildings. Following the discovery, site manager Darryn Adams ordered all employees to undergo a reasonable cause drug test.

In the following days about 190 employees, including managers, were subjected to urine tests.

When the tests began, a delegate contacted the union's area organiser, George Hollinsworth, who phoned Adams and said the union considered the testing would be in breach of the drug and alcohol policy, as it was neither random nor testing for reasonable cause.

Adams eventually agreed to halt testing so a meeting with Hollinsworth and union delegates could be held.

They told Adams the union did not believe the situation fell within the reasonable cause category, and that he didn't have the right to test all of the staff in relation to the plants.

One employee was found to have a non-negative test, but there was no suggestion he planted the marijuana plants, the authority said.

Carter Holt Harvey said it was justified in testing the employees in the way it did because it was reasonable to assume that whoever planted the marijuana worked at the sawmill.

It conceded the testing was not in strict accordance with its policy and procedures, but said it was motivated "by a strong desire to protect its employees and so the testing was justified".

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Reasonable cause testing in the collective agreement required evidence to suspect an individual employee was affected by drugs before deciding to test. It applied to individual employees and not to a whole shift or whole workforce, the authority said.

The authority received evidence from five of the applicants - four men and one woman.

Authority member Christine Hickey upheld the complaints.

"That was to their disadvantage, not only because giving a urine sample in an employment setting is invasive and compromising of an employee's dignity and privacy, but particularly because the requirement was not in line with any of their terms of conditions of their employment," she said.

This negatively affected the necessary relationship of trust between employer and employee.

The applicants wanted $2500 each and $20,000 as a penalty for breaches of good faith.

Hickey said as the employment relationship was ongoing it was more suitable for the parties to make efforts to agree on the amount of compensation payable to the applicants than for her to make orders. She directed the parties to mediation to set the amount of compensation.

- Nelson

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