Mandatory Retirement – federal step forward, Ontario steps back

Just when legislated age discrimination is about to end federally, we learn that Ontario firefighters successfully demanded to stay behind. Ontario’s Bill 181 was rushed through just before the summer recess and fall election campaign and sets the mandatory retirement age for firefighters at age 60. The provision actually allows the collective agreement to set a higher mandatory retirement age, but the point here is that age is set as the criterion not competence or fitness to do the job. And, if a collective agreement does not have a mandatory retirement provision; it is deemed to have one, set at age 60.

Several firefighters have attempted to bring their dismissal at age 60 to the Human Rights Tribunal and this appears to be what prompted the various players to take action – to avoid the costly litigation process by removing their right to keep working once and for all through legislation. One firefighter lost his case at the tribunal – not least because he was obliged to represent himself – and did not bring evidence to counter the evidence led by his employers. On the basis of that administrative tribunal’s decision, all the legislative processes leapt into action.

In supporting the move to bring back age discrimination for firefighters [Ontario eliminated it in 2005], the firefighters’ unions and management, city managers and MPPs of all parties accepted the proposition that the workplace conditions, including exposure to hazardous materials, were such that the health of firefighters was compromised to such an extent that they should be required to retire – presumably for their own good. One witness actually referred to savings to the Worker Safety Insurance system [Workers’ Comp] as a positive.

It is a faint hope but all this concerted concern for the front line firefighter might be better placed in reducing the hazards of the workplace rather than just forcing people to retire before they are supposedly too exposed to stay healthy. And what about the rights of workers who want to keep working – or need to?

The witnesses and legislators also ruled out the possibility that there could be a reliable test for both the medical fitness of the firefighter as well as his/her continued competence on the job. Airline pilots undergo regular medical fitness tests and must pass simulator testing on their proficiency. Surely testing technology has caught up with firefighting duties.

The Constitutionality of Bill 181 is expected to be challenged as offending the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Airline pilots have been largely winning their Charter challenge cases and have prompted federal action to bring the federal sector into the 21stcentury – as had the provincial sector previously – until this.

The federal government is poised to eliminate mandatory retirement for pilots, newscasters, railway workers, long distance truckers, miners and workers in other federally regulated industries. Pity they couldn’t keep the provinces from undermining their progress.

To read a copy of the bill, click here

To read a copy of the transcripts, click here