What happened to the state's duty to protect dairy owners?

by The Listener / 08 June, 2017

Photo/One Shot/Getty Images

Questions of public importance seldom have simple answers, but when one group in society is in need of extra protection from the state, it should trigger immediate action. Call it decency. Yet the alarm bells about the growing dangers facing workers in local dairies and liquor shops have at times been drowned out by the cacophony of those with other agendas or given to election-year querulousness.

There are even those who say “serve them right”, as though violent robbery were a righteous punishment for engaging in the legal sale of tobacco or booze. Yet no one selling any lawful product should face the risk dairy staff now face. Even predatory loan sharks are entitled not to be terrorised. But for some dairies, it is not a case of “if” but of “when” an aggravated robbery will expose them to the risk of trauma, injury and even death.

New Zealanders have been increasingly horrified at the violence in CCTV footage of incidents that are associated almost exclusively with theft of cigarettes. Police are unequivocal that it’s a crime wave directly resulting from the tax-driven annual price increases, which have made cigarettes “the new gold”.

The local dairy is a valued but very modest Kiwi institution. And as with so much crime, dairy robberies affect the poor more than the wealthy. Dairy staff are typically low-paid. Dairy owners do not appear on any Rich List. Moreover, dairies in the poorest neighbourhoods run the most risk of being robbed. Many have been hit more than once; for some it is almost a regular occurrence.

Obviously, the Government didn’t set out to make cigarettes the black-market commodity of choice but rather to deter smoking. Yet it’s fair to ask why officials failed to foresee the increased risk. Dairies and liquor stores have always been a tempting target: there’s one in every neighbourhood, they’re open late and they have cash in the till and isolated staff who might be easily overpowered. The prevalence of methamphetamine addiction and the unpredictable effects of synthetic drugs are aggravating factors in the cigarette crime wave.

Not a moment too soon, the Government is conceding that there’s a serious problem and is now offering a new $1.8 million fund to subsidise security upgrades for shops police deem most at risk. But such a sudden solution should be closely scrutinised. Is it enough? Will the security measures it funds simply drive robbers to dairies in hitherto untroubled localities? Would the money not be better spent on more police? Why not compel tobacco companies to provide tamper-proof, slow-dispensing machines at their own cost?

These are fair questions, particularly the last one. The funding protects tobacco companies’ supply chain; they should be required to share the cost.

It is not as if the new policy is the product of long or deep thought. Less than a month ago, Associate Health Minister Nicky Wagner told protesting dairy owners their solution was to stop selling cigarettes. To go from official dismissiveness to the establishment of a new protection fund in such a short time is decision-making at a speed rarely seen. But the policy may benefit from fine-tuning.

There have also been strident voices in this debate bitterly begrudging state assistance to businesses that sell cigarettes. The implication – that dairy owners and their staff have somehow forfeited the right to be protected from violent crime – is a form of zealotry verging on sociopathic. It is also illogical: supermarket, hotel and petrol station employees, who also sell cigarettes, face far less risk of violence than small retailers. While no one can dispute that cigarettes are injurious to health, they remain a legal product for adults to buy and dairies to sell.

Debate has also revealed some community resentment at dairies’ mark-ups, as if the subsidies might be subsidising exploitative businesses. Realistically, dairies must charge bigger margins than high-volume businesses do. They are convenience stores, and the community would be the poorer without them.

A further gripe has been that other theft-prone small businesses, such as tradespeople with expensive kit in their vans, don’t get Government subsidies for their security. But nor do they now routinely face knife-wielding invaders as an unintended consequence of health policy.

Most dairy owners are South Asian, and it’s dismayingly easy to detect an undercurrent of racism in the opposition to security funding. But these are vulnerable Kiwis and they need and deserve the State’s protection.

It is incumbent upon tobacco companies, too, to help halt this new, indirect harm from their products. And the anti-smoking lobby should immediately start shaming them into doing so.

This article was first published in the June 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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