Tories end forced retirement, decades of ‘age discrimination’

This article was published in the National December 18th 2011.  To see this story and to read related stories on the National post website, please click here

Two decades since Ottawa’s first attempt to kill mandatory retirement, the Conservative government has managed to quietly overturn legislation that has for 30 years given federally regulated employers the right to force workers into retirement because of their age.

The section of the Canadian Human Rights Act that permitted mandatory retirement was officially repealed by the government’s Budget Implementation Bill, which received Royal Assent last week. Now that the budget bill is formally on the books, the country’s 12,000 federally regulated employers will no longer be able to force their 800,000 employees into retirement beginning December 2012.

“This was an overnight success after 20 years of lobbying,” said Susan Eng, a vice-president at CARP, Canada’s largest national organization representing seniors. “They buried it in the larger budget bill, and this is one time where I’m glad they did.”

All Canadian jurisdictions, with the exception of New Brunswick, have now abolished mandatory retirement, although there are some exceptions in some provinces for particular occupations. The latest budget bill means employers in federally regulated industries such as banking, transport, and communications will be allowed to continue working beyond the typically mandated ages of 60 or 65.

Successive Liberal and Conservative governments have promised to repeal the provision, but either an election or excessive lobbying by employers and unions meant bills continuously died on the Order Paper. David Dodge, the former Bank of Canada governor, catapulted the issue into the spotlight in 2004, when he challenged the status quo by calling mandatory retirement a “silly policy.”

A move that would have once sparked controversy went off last week without much ado — a signal, Ms. Eng said, that “there has been a sea-change in public values on the issue of forcing people to retire before their time.

“We’re not born with date stamps saying our fitness for work expires at 65,” David Langtry, acting chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, said in a statement. “Age discrimination is age discrimination, pure and simple.”

The commission has called for the repeal of mandatory retirement provisions since 1979, and in 2009 the tribunal ruled that mandatory retirement provisions in Air Canada’s collective agreement with its pilots’ association violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Air Canada has estimated that between 2009 and 2013, nearly 20% of its 3,000 pilots will hit their mandatory retirement age of 60.

Some Air Canada pilots have been among the most vocal opponents to mandatory retirement provisions, and their cause has migrated from the tribunal to the Federal Court of Appeals, which is slated to reach a decision early next year that could affect pilots turning 60 before the December 2012 coming-into-force date.

Raymond Hall, the Winnipeg-based counsel for the group of pilots challenging the provision in the courts, said the government’s bill is welcomed — but too little, too late.

“When I sent out an email to my 200 clients, I got 15 emails from pilots asking, ‘I’m turning 60 before next December, so what will happen to me?’” he said. “My answer was that Air Canada might be able to continue its practice.”

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents 600,000 workers across the country, has long opposed the end of mandatory retirement. The union’s Air Canada Component did not respond to an interview request late Friday, but the union’s main website says ending mandatory retirement means workers without adequate pension coverage will never have the option of retiring.

“Mandatory retirement does not guarantee that workers get an adequate retirement income,” the union says. “Without mandatory retirement, governments and employers will always look to us to work longer as an alternative to providing adequate pension plans.”

Economists have argued that killing mandatory retirement will help mitigate labour shortages as the Baby Boomer population ages. They point out, too, that the longer a person works, the longer they pay income taxes into increasingly cash-strapped government coffers.

“The Conservatives promised this in their pre-election budget and during the campaign, so rather than engage all that controversy they just got it done,” Ms. Eng said. “Everyone has had their full say more than once over the course of many years. What else was there to say? Do it, or don’t do it.”

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