[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 October 2006, 23:47 GMT 00:47 UK
Tackling Ageism Down Under
By Nick Bryant
BBC Australia correspondent

In Australia, age discrimination laws have become as much a matter of economic necessity as a question of fairness and social justice.

Australia's Parliament building in Canberra
Australia's Parliament passed anti-ageism laws in 2004

The country is experiencing chronic skills shortages in most of its major sectors.

At the same time, its workforce is getting greyer.

By mid-century, over 25% of the population will be aged over 65.

Partly for that reason, the Australian government passed the Age Discrimination Act in 2004.

This augmented a patchwork of state laws pioneered by New South Wales in 1977 and bolstered the first federal law which came into effect in 1996.

Ageism still rife

The long-awaited legislation aimed to eliminate discrimination against persons on the grounds of age, and to change negative stereotypes of older people.

The act has not worked terribly well
Ian Yates, Council on the Ageing

But despite offering strong legal protections to workers young and old, campaigners claim that corporate life remains rife with ageist policies, discriminating against mature people in hiring, firing and training.

"The act has not worked terribly well," according to Ian Yates, the national director of the pressure group the Council on the Ageing.

"Partly because it hasn't received a huge amount of publicity and partly because it's still very hard to prove that someone didn't get a job or didn't get training because of their age."

It is also hard to bring about attitudinal changes through legislation alone.

Ian Yates says myths about older workers are still widespread.

"Employers think they are more prone to be ill, even though young workers take more 'sickies'.

"The idea that old people are reluctant to retrain is also wrong," he says.

This kind of negative stereotyping is extremely difficult to combat.

Enforcement is a problem

A weakness of the Australian act is that complaints against employers have to be fought on a case-by-case basis.

Passengers leave a Virgin Blue plane
Virgin Blue was caught by anti-ageism laws in Queensland

The Council on the Ageing would like to see the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), the body vested with enforcing the act, given much more sweeping powers.

More specifically, it would like the commission to be able to investigate companies for evidence of a pattern of discrimination rather than merely considering complaints brought in isolation by individual employees.

That would make it much easier to highlight the problem of "hidden discrimination".

In the first year after the passage of the act, the commission received just 78 complaints, three-quarters of them relating to allegations of discrimination in the workplace.

A 60-year-old complained to the commission after being told he was "too old" to be a cleaner.

A 48-year-old bemoaned a job advertisement stating that the company "seeks a well-presented, younger applicant" for the position of receptionist.

Curiously, the job advertisement was actually written by a 50-year-old, proving perhaps how ageism has become so ingrained that even mature workers themselves perpetuate it, however inadvertently.

But youngsters also sought protection under the new law.

A 19-year-old apprentice successfully argued that his youth made him the target of workplace bullying.

He claimed that the company director continually made comments to him such as: "Your father should have done the smart thing and put your head in a warm bucket of water when you were born."

The complaint earned the teenager $3,800 in compensation.

Slow progress

The budget airline Virgin Blue fell foul of the state age discrimination law in Queensland after failing to explain why no-one over the age of 36 was employed as cabin crew during a year-long recruitment drive.

But despite the legislative initiatives from the state and, more belatedly, the federal governments, studies suggest that age discrimination is notoriously hard to eliminate.

Mature workers still find it harder to get jobs, and are commonly the first to be made redundant.

People aged 45 and over are likely to remain unemployed for longer periods of time than younger people.

Ultimately, workforce shortages may deal a much heftier blow to age discrimination than legislation.

The market may prove to be a tougher regulator than the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific