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Last Updated: Friday, 29 September 2006, 06:52 GMT 07:52 UK
New age laws 'are long overdue'
By Brendan Barber
TUC General Secretary

The new age equality law is a long-overdue addition to employee protection in the UK.

Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary
Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary

Thanks to Europe the government has now introduced regulations that for the first time in the UK give workers protection against age discrimination.

Whatever their age, workers now have important protection against discrimination and ageism.

That applies whether they are applying for a job or a promotion, concerned about their pay rates, taking advantage of workplace benefits such as holidays, redundancy or pensions, or considering their retirement options.

Students and others taking training courses may be protected from age discrimination, if, for example, colleges or training providers unfairly give preference to those of certain ages and not others.

Age-based harassment is also banned by the regulations.

This is defined as any unwanted conduct that violates your dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you.

This is probably a lot less common than sexual or racial harassment.

But if you are repeatedly taunted for being "an ugly old wrinkly", you would have a legal claim against not just those insulting you, but also your employer for allowing it to happen.

This could include damages for injury to feelings.

Common prejudice

While age-based harassment may be rare, surveys tell us that age discrimination is the most common type of prejudice at work.

The regulations are not perfect, and are not always clear about what will and won't be allowed

The recent TUC report "Ready, Willing and Able" found that a million 50-65 year olds want work but can't find it.

Less than a half of people in this age group without jobs have retired "fully voluntarily".

In some sectors you are thought to be over the hill well before 50 unless you are lucky enough to have become a top manager.

At the other end of the age range, young workers often face lower pay rates and stereotypical views about their inexperience or reliability.

But while the new law is real progress, the regulations are not perfect and are not always clear about what will and won't be allowed.

So while it is pretty clear that you cannot give people some extra holiday simply because they are over 40, you will probably have to go to an employment tribunal to challenge an employer that gives training to younger staff.

And there are arguments that employers can use to justify different treatment for different age groups.

Employer rights

The government is also allowing employers to continue to make people retire, even if they want to stay in their job and can do it perfectly adequately.

Under the regulations there is only a right to request to stay on beyond 65.

The employer has an absolute right to say no.

Many legal experts think this breaks the European law from which these regulations flow, and at least one legal challenge is to be mounted in the courts.

It is also disappointing that the government did not use the new regulations to improve statutory redundancy pay.

It could have replaced the existing system of different redundancy pay for different age groups with a new higher rate for all, recognising how much its value has fallen in recent years.

The national minimum wage will also continue to be lower for 18-21 year olds.

Legal risks

Our message to employers is that they should not wait to see how the courts interpret some of the complicated detail of the regulations but make sure that all their policies are as age neutral as possible.

Age discrimination is quite simply unfair, and bad for business

Many employers already have a progressive approach, and unions have been busy negotiating changes that will make sure that the spirit as well as the letter of the law is met.

We are working with employers' organisations to provide detailed guidance on how to do this.

Those who do not will risk expensive and difficult court cases, and with the distinct possibility that difficult cases will end up resolved in the European Court of Justice several years down the line, so it is better to be safe than sorry.

And if you are an employee who thinks you have been discriminated against because of your age, you should contact your union or an advice agency to seek help as you may now have the law on your side.

Age discrimination is quite simply unfair, and bad for business.

Unions will be making sure that the new law makes a difference.

It is time to end this huge source of unfair discrimination once and for all.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by the BBC unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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