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Rise in use of drug tests to sack staff without redundancy pay

Employers are increasingly using drug testing to get rid of staff without having to make redundancy payouts, as a way of ­cutting costs during the recession, a ­charity has said.

Release, which focuses on drugs, the law and human rights, reported a four-fold increase in calls to its drugs team about problems with workplace testing in the first three months of 2009 compared with the same period last year.

In the first quarter of 2008, the team received 493 calls, with just 31 (6.2%) related to testing at work. In the first three months of this year, 548 calls were received with 145 (26.4%) about this issue.

In many cases callers have been getting in touch in a state of distress, having been tested for the first time after years in the same job. Often a programme of voluntary redundancies was announced, followed by workplace medicals for the remaining staff, including a drug test.

Sacking employees who test positive for illicit drugs allows employers to avoid making redundancy payouts. Cannabis, which can remain detectable for several weeks after use, is the substance causing the biggest problems for employees.

While drug testing in the workplace has been routine for many years in safety critical jobs, such as driving and machine operation, Release reports that many calls are coming from sectors they had comparatively few dealings with before such as office work, banking and commerce.

Previously the charity received regular calls from employers about how best to support staff with drug problems. These calls have dwindled to almost zero.

The expansion of drug testing into non-traditional areas could breach employees’ human rights and entitlement to a private life, while offering few enhancements to workplace performance, Release said.

Forty per cent of the workforce under 40 have used illicit drugs, according to Frank, the government’s drug awareness campaign. It is unclear how many users are impaired by drugs during working hours.

Frank’s literature states that while some workplaces may benefit from drug testing there are also many drawbacks, such as a negative impact on employer/employee relations.

The independent inquiry into drug testing at work in 2004 said “good management, education and support for staff is more useful, effective and less costly [than drug testing] in dealing with drug problems”.

Concateno, a group of companies that between them have approximately 60% of the UK workplace drug testing market, reported a 13.2% increase in testing between 2007 and 2008. In 2007, 159,000 workplace drug tests were carried out and in 2008, 180,000 tests were done.

Diane Taylor The Guardian,