National taskforce formed to tackle ‘ice’ and other drug abuse in shearing sheds

Drug testing suitable for shearing sheds is high on the list of priorities for a national taskforce, formed to tackle widespread reports of drug and alcohol abuse in the wool industry according to ABC Rural, the source of this article.

The Australian Shearing Contractors Association (SCAA), National Farmers Federation (NFF), Australian Workers Union (AWU) and Wool Producers Australia (WPA) have come together to address concerns, with a specific focus on methamphetamine, or ‘ice’, abuse.

Changes to the way shearers are paid is also being considered, due to reports that piecework agreements act as an incentive for shearers to take drugs and enhance performance.

The wool industry came under heavy scrutiny in 2014 following the release of videos depicting workers abusing sheep.

SCAA’s Jason Letchford said the taskforce was an acknowledgement of the industry’s issues, along with a commitment to change.

“This is definitely a response to that [public scrutiny], along with it [being] overdue that we should have had these things in place before 2014 also,” he said.  Mr Letchford said methamphetamine abuse brought new challenges.  “I’ve heard some horrible stories that go hand in hand with stuff that we hear in society – basically people losing their mind in terms of frustrations they have in the workplace through to harming themselves,” he said.  “I’m hoping I’m correct in saying, even though they are very serious incidences they are very sporadic and not commonplace.”

National Farmers Federation’s Sarah McKinnon said the taskforce would develop clear guidelines – for farmers, contractors and fellow workers – on how to respond to a drug-affected person.

With professional services sometimes hundreds of kilometres away, Ms McKinnon said a unique approach was required.  “What we can’t have is situations where people feel like they are not able to take steps to manage drugs in the workplace because they fear for their own safety,” she said.

Drug testing not up to scratch

Victorian contractor Bryce Kelly said a shortage of shearers meant large competitors were not pressured to ensure quality workers. “Big contractors take on too much and just employ whoever rings up,” he said.

“Obviously they get a lot of shearers that other contractors wouldn’t employ, just probably because of the fact they’re on drugs.”

Mr Kelly, along with the peak bodies representing farmers and shearing contractors agree that drug testing would improve standards.

Jason Letchford said SCAA was “in favour of drug testing and drug screening” but existing technology was inadequate.  Rather than testing positive, portable technology will only indicate a ‘non-negative’ result – which could relate to legal prescription medication.  “These screens and the tests that you’re referring to are quite general to just say, ‘there is an issue, it needs to be looked into further’,” he said.  “It’s not as easy as working in an urban or metropolitan centre where you can send someone down to the local blood testing laboratory.”

The NFF also wants to see progress in drug testing technology, along with guidelines around police involvement.

Piecework agreements ‘incentivise drug use’

Piecework agreements mean the faster shearers work, the more they get paid, and shearers have spoken out about a culture of drug use to enhance performance.

“They use sports enhancing drugs to shear more,” one Victorian worker said. “There are a lot of teams that do it; there are a lot of contractors that don’t care about people that do it,” another added.

Mr Letchford, from the SCA, said it was difficult to survey shearers and ask why they used.  “We can’t say one way or another whether that competitiveness to be the best shearer – whether people are resorting to drugs on that case,” he said.  “That’s possibly one of the theories out there.”

SCAA is reluctant but open to discussions about changing the payment system, but the NFF and all shearers in one Victorian shed said it was a ridiculous idea.

“It probably would stop shearers from taking drugs but it would probably stop a lot of shearers from shearing too,” one shearer said.

“No shearers would want to stay in the industry if that did happen,” contractor Bryce Kelly added.  “You’ve got a bloke shearing 200 a day; he’s not going to want to get paid the same as the bloke shearing 120 a day.”

“Piece rates are critical to productivity on farm,” NFF’s Sarah McKinnon said.  “It’s ridiculous to say that you can only be a great shearer if you’re high.”

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