Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from GMB Research Department


  The GMB trade union has some 700,000 members working in private industry, the public services and the voluntary sector. Our members come from all walks of life and they can be found in most occupations and most industries in the UK.

  Age-related issues are moving up the political agenda. Together with other developed countries, the UK is expected to experience a marked demographic shift, with fewer workers under 50 being available. As our society ages, there will be a greater demand for older workers. Yet our experience shows that, at present, these workers are routinely overlooked and discriminated in the labour market.

  In line with the general public, GMB members have concluded that age discrimination is an unacceptable practice which must be tackled. GMB policy calls for the enactment of effective age discrimination legislation.

1.  In what ways and to what extent are older workers treated less favourably than younger workers as a result of their age?

  Age discrimination differs from other forms of discrimination because it will affect everyone of us, in some way, at some stage in our lives. While it is recognised that younger workers also suffer from discrimination on age grounds, eg lower rates of pay (discrimination which has been reinforced by the national minimum wage provisions which apply a youth rate to the under 21s), younger workers do, at least, get older. It is when people reach "middle age" that discrimination really starts to bite and continues to get worse.

  The stereotypical older worker is primarily viewed as a man aged between 50 and 65 years. This view excludes significant groups such as women returners many of whom will delay re-entering the labour market until their children are in secondary level education and who are penalised as a result. Other important groups include older people with disabilities and older ethnic minorities. These groups commonly suffer double discrimination as a result of their disability/ethnic background coupled with their age. Older ethnic people, especially first generation, suffer in comparison with younger members of their community usually because the latter are British educated with English as their first language.

  Research on behalf of the DfEE confirms that older workers are disadvantaged compared to their younger counterparts.[22] They are at greater risk of exiting the labour market permanently and it is much more difficult for them to re-enter the workforce. Obviously, there is a loss incurred to those individuals who are denied the opportunity to work but there is also a cost to the economy as a whole. Which the Employers Forum on Age estimates costs the UK economy £26 billion per year.[23]

  Age discrimination affects older workers at all the stages of the employment cycle. The following are some examples of cases recently reported by GMB members.


  GMB Birmingham and West Midlands Region reported the case of a member, a highly experienced sewing machinist, who was seeking similar employment following redundancy. The prospective employer said he was impressed by the woman's references and her curriculum vitae. He then asked the applicant how old she was. She replied 58 but added that she had no intention of retiring at the state retirement age. The employer concluded that she was too old for the job. He wanted to recruit "someone much younger in order to get more years out of them".

  GMB CFTA Section, which covers workers in the construction, furniture and timber trades, reports that older workers are deliberately not recruited by construction companies as they are seen as being too expensive to engage compared to younger counterparts. A view which has been confirmed by research supported by the European Social Fund.[24]

Loss of employment

  GMB Scotland reported the case of a member working for Manpower, the employment agency, on a British Telecom contract. British Telecom has a blanket policy of not employing agency staff aged over 60. As a result, a number of workers were given notice to end their assignment within the BT contract. Manpower however, do not operate a "fixed age" policy and gave a commitment to re-deploy the staff affected within the local area.

  GMB Scotland also reported cases of workers in the Rosyth Dockyard where the employer had attempted to use the company pension scheme to fund redundancies of those aged 60 and above, whereas the official retirement age was 65. Under the threat of legal action the company retracted and the affected employees remained in employment.


  GMB Southern Region report the lack of promotional opportunities for older workers in a leading national food and clothing supermarket chain. GMB members throughout the region felt that the company was guilty of age discrimination in relation to promotions. The company appeared to have a policy of promoting younger, less experienced and able staff, rather than older colleagues.

2.  What benefits does promoting age diversity in the workplace offer to employers and employees?

  The Government's Code of Practice outlines the business benefits for having an age diverse workforce. The arguments are persuasive and the GMB broadly accepts them. Forward-looking companies have been able to differentiate themselves from their rivals by employing older workers which, in turn, provides competitive advantage. It also makes sense, in a tightening labour market, to retain older workers together with their skills. However, the question remains as to why the business community has been so tardy to recognise these apparent benefits. The answer would seem to be that legislation is the key requirement. Promotion of the Code of Practice, by itself, is not sufficient to deliver the necessary of changes.

  Over the past 20 years the proportion of men aged between 50 and 65 years not economically active has doubled. Older workers have been shaken out of the labour market and many have found it impossible to return to the world of work. Clearly, older workers would benefit from an age diversity culture where their contributions were valued, irrespective of their age. The economic benefits are also clear. Rather than being dependent on state benefits most 50-year-olds would prefer to be given the opportunity to earn a living. Employment is also more likely to enhance the particular individual's sense of well-being.

3.  In what circumstances (if any) is the use of age as a criterion for the recruitment and retention of employees justified?

  The GMB believes that age discrimination in employment should only be allowed in restricted circumstances. One of the key aims of any legislation should be the protection of young workers. Ideally the GMB would prefer that the under 18s were in full-time education or training.

  The Working Time Directive, in its preamble, states that "Member States should take appropriate measures to ensure that the working time of adolescents receiving school education does not adversely affect their ability to benefit from that education". There is widespread evidence that 16-17 year olds are spending up to 20 hours a week working part time. It is not unusual for pupils at this age to be in class for 26 hours with another 18 hours required for designated homework, a total of 44 hours per week. As a result of part time working homework is often ignored. The GMB has called upon the DfEE and the DTI to co-ordinate policy to achieve a balance between work and study for adolescents at school. The departments must set priorities and develop a coherent policy in order to protect young people.

  Age-related health and safety grounds could be applied as the basis for barring young workers. However, such an exclusion would not have a general application and such occupations would need to be strictly defined. An initial aim would be to remove all possible hazards by implementing risk assessments, in accordance with health and safety legislation. However, even allowing for such preventative measures there may still remain jobs which can be described as being "hazardous", eg chemicals. Criteria to be applied could require "relevant work experience", say a minimum of two years.

  The GMB does not advocate an upper age limit on health and safety grounds. Older workers are generally regarded as having a better safety record than younger workers. Even in potentially dangerous occupations or those which require a high degree of physical fitness, such as the police or fire services, age is not the determining factor. Instead, the test applied is the employee's level of fitness.

  The costs associated with training are regularly cited as a justifiable reason for the setting of an upper age requirement. For example, that the costs of training are disproportionate, say, in the case of an applicant who is within a couple of years of the state retirement age. With the exception of occupations, such as airline pilots, where training is both extensive and expensive, this argument does not really stand up. Employers can never be certain when an employee will leave for another employer.

  The debate has mainly focused on the problems faced by older workers, usually men, aged between 50 to 65. However, there are many people in their late 60s and 70s who wish to remain economically active. This may be as a result of an inadequate pension entitlement or simply a desire to keep working. But there may also be labour market reasons. GMB CFTA Section reports, that due to acute skills shortages, it is not uncommon for workers, aged up to 75, to be employed in the organ building sector.

  Undoubtedly, with the prospect of impending age discrimination legislation the expectations of the over 65s will also be raised. Any debate must give consideration to the legitimate expectations of these older workers. Usually, the main reason given by businesses for not employing people beyond 70 years are problems associated with employers liability insurance. However, with the impending demographic changes it must be asked whether, over the longer term, this is a sustainable argument.

  In recent years, the GMB has received complaints of perceived age discrimination from members in this "older" category. For example, GMB Midland and East Coast Region recently reported the case of the 73-year-old former leisure centre cleaner who lost his job when the local authority changed its policy and made 65 years the upper age limit for employment. The member described the new policy as "clearly ageist". He commented that the termination of this contract had been taken without any reference to his ability to do his work. His conclusion was confirmed in the employer's letter which praised the member for "his support and loyal service [that] had not gone unnoticed but has been greatly appreciated".

  The GMB accepts that due to practical difficulties there may have to be some upper limit, particularly for recruitment. We suggest, however, that there should be a distinction made between those already in employment and job applicants. The position of the former group could be ring-fenced with annual appraisals for those aged 70 and over.

  One GMB concern is that older workers, with pensions, will be exploited to fill lowly paid jobs which younger workers could not afford to take. In accordance with the recently proposed amendments to the equal pay act, which would require pay monitoring, we would expect companies to review their workforces to achieve age diversity and to ensure that there was no discrimination.

4.  How effective is the Government's Code of Practice in promoting age diversity in the workplace?

  Within two months of the launch of the Code of Practice it was claimed that 70 per cent of employers were aware of the Code. A fact seized upon by Andrew Smith, the then employment minister.[25] However, research by the Employers Forum on Age found that two-thirds of employers said the Code would make no difference to the way they operated their business and less than 10 per cent intended to change their recruitment or training policies to comply with the Code.[26] In the intervening period there has been no evidence that the Code has made any significant impact.

  The GMB publicised the Code of Practice, together with guidance for negotiators and representatives, as part of our Bargaining Brief series. To an extent, we have been successful in getting "age" included as part of companies' equal opportunities policies. But age discrimination cases are usually individual, not collective.

  The Code's non-statutory basis remains its fundamental weakness, a fact which is increasingly being recognised. A majority of the Employers Forum on Age, the group which has championed the voluntary approach, now accept that the Code of Practice should be given legal force.[27] The GMB and others had warned that only forward-looking employers would implement the Code, the majority would continue to sue discriminatory practices. Unfortunately, that is what has happened.

5.  In what ways do other Government policies such as the New Deal help or hinder older workers, especially unemployed job seekers?

  The New Deal for the over 50s was launched nationally in April 2000. This programme offers one-to-one advice from a personal adviser on topics such as job search or interview skills. It also offers a weekly subsidy (£60 for a full time job) with a guaranteed take home wage for the first year and a training grant of up to £750 may be available when the claimant starts work.

  The key difference between this programme for older workers and the New Deal for young people (18-24) is that the latter group undergo a period of intensive help, known as the Gateway, which provides advice, guidance, information and support in finding a job. The Gateway, can last up to four months, and aims to enhance the young person's employability and help them get employment. Unless the young person finds a job they are offered one of four choices: a subsidised New Deal job, environmental work, work in the voluntary sector or full-time education or training and, as we know, there is no fifth option.

  The New Deal for the over 50s has not been running long enough to know whether or not it is a sustainable programme. It has, however, been reported that there has been poor awareness and almost non-existent take up of the training grant.[28] Many of the clients of this programme have been out of the labour market for a long period. It is reasonable to assume that, all things being equal, if older claimants were provided with a programme similar to the New Deal for Younger People their levels of economic participation would be markedly enhanced.

  The GMB has already made known our suggestion for a New Deal for Women Returners, ie beyond those on benefits. This would include "one stop" personal advisers who could provide guidance, support and help. Such an initiative would give these women real choices by offering support to those who wished to return to work. This proposal would probably be self-financing as many would become taxpayers.

  On the whole the Government must be congratulated for the positive measures that it has adopted since coming to power. As we have already stated improvements can be made to the New Deal for older workers. It would be expected that such changes would improve this group's employability. However, it would be a mistake to assume that, in the absence of age discrimination legislation, such supply-side measures can cure older workers' current low levels of economic activity. It would also be an error to ignore the UK's regional inequalities which must also be tackled.

6.  Is there a case for anti-discrimination legislation and, if so, what provisions should it include?

  The GMB's view remains that there is an overwhelming case for legislation to combat age discrimination. Policymakers must accept that age discrimination is just as unacceptable as discrimination on grounds of sex, race or disability. The fact that age discrimination is not presently unlawful sends out the wrong message that it is, somehow, less important and therefore an acceptable practice.

  The Government's Code of Practice has failed. There will be those who will argue that the legislative approach has not removed other discriminatory employment practices. Instead, they will continue to argue in favour of the voluntary approach claiming that the business case will ensure that "good practice" becomes the norm. The GMB's view is that we cannot rely on the labour market alone to solve the issues of age discrimination.

  It will also argue that age is a difficult issue to legislate.[29] For example, it is often asked "how do you define a younger or older worker?". However, just because something is problematical is not, by itself, a sufficiently compelling argument against legislating. In any case, is that the right question to ask? Surely, the correct enquiry is "is age the reason why?" the person was not recruited, promoted, trained retained etc.

  Legislation is the prerequisite for the necessary culture change (and following the enactment of the Framework Directive on equal treatment in employment and occupation the UK will have legislation by, at least, 2006). Legislation will act as a catalyst to encourage good employment practices and procedures. Crucially, it will enable older workers to seek legal redress. Also, it would send out a clear message demonstrating society's strong disapproval of a morally unacceptable practice.

  The GMB welcomes the recent enactment of the Framework Directive but we recognise that this only provides a minimum floor. The GMB would be opposed to the UK Government transposing the Article 6 list of justifications of differences of treatment on grounds of age. In our view, the list is too widely drafted and would allow EU member states to tolerate most forms of age discrimination indefinitely. The GMB will argue for a comprehensive statute with exemptions restricted to clearly defined areas.

  The statute should be framed to reflect the over-reaching principle that it is unlawful to discriminate solely on grounds of age. The provisions should extend to remove statutory age limits, eg when claiming unfair dismissal and redundancy payments. It should also apply to occupational pension schemes. The GMB remains opposed to age restrictions being placed on access to occupational pension schemes. Young workers should be allowed to join pension schemes from the first day of employment and older recruits should be allowed access to such schemes up to one year of reaching that scheme's normal retirement age. For example, if the normal retirement age is 65, then 64 would apply as an upper age limit for joining the scheme. Whether individuals apply to join their particular scheme will then be a matter of personal choice.

  Lastly, the GMB is disappointed that the UK Government chose to negotiate a further three-year extension which could delay implementation until 2006. We will actively urge the Government not to utilise the extension but to enact legislation by the previously envisaged deadline, ie 2003.

GMB Research Department

January 2001

22   Characteristics of Older Workers, DfEE Research Report. Back

23   Employers Forum on Age report, "A Profits Warning-the macroeconomic costs of ageism" (1998). Back

24   Construction News, 30/03/00, page 4. Back

25   DfEE Press Release, 399/99, 6 September 1999. Back

26   EOR No.88 November/December 1999. Back

27   Howard Davies, EFA Chair, quoted in People Management, 16 March 2000, page 10. Back

28   Working Brief, November 2000, page 7. Back

29   EOR NO.95, January/February 2001, page 17. Back

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