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Employment Summit - Age and disability

Discrimination Age Discrimination

Good morning and welcome. I am delighted that you are all able to join me today for the launch of the Willing to Work Inquiry Report.

I start by acknowledging that we meet on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present. I would also like to acknowledge any Aboriginal people who are here with us today.
I acknowledge my fellow Commissioners.

  • Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission and commissioners designate:
  • Kay Patterson, recently appointed Age Discrimination Commissioner
  • Alastair McEwin, recently appointed Disability Discrimination Commissioner
  • And our special guest Professor Ron McCallum

I would also like to welcome guests who may be joining us remotely through our live streaming and also acknowledge the Auslan interpreters and Ai-Media who are providing our live captioning service today.
Almost 18 months ago the Commission received the request from the Attorney General the Hon George Brandis to conduct a national Inquiry into workplace discrimination against older people and people with disability, Australia’s first such national stocktake of these important issues.

I personally was delighted to be given the task of leading this work.

I had already formed the view throughout my term as Age discrimination commissioner, and more recently as disability discrimination commissioner that the denial of the right to work was one of the most widespread and pernicious attacks on the rights of individuals that we see in Australia these days.

The scale of the problem is huge. The implications of this denial on such a scale are damaging all round, to our community, the national economy, to business, but most of all to the hundreds and thousands of individuals who, though willing to work, are denied the opportunity to do so.

Through this discrimination they are denied the benefits - of dignity, independence, a sense of purpose and social connectedness - that work brings.
Belief in the rights and benefits of work has always been a core value for me.
I have spent my long working life committed to the rights of all Australians to these benefits, regardless of gender, race, culture, age or disability.

So the fit was perfect for me, and I again place on record my thanks to AG George Brandis for sending us this reference.

My starting position was this: everyone has the right to work, but too many capable older Australians and Australians with disability are denied this right, because of discrimination.
This reality lies at the heart of our report.

The report is grounded in the voices of individuals affected by this discrimination.

It was my job to explore as widely and deeply as possible the real experiences of those suffering discrimination, and to come to an understanding of the causes.

Even more challenging, I needed to identify proposals for change, proposals that would eliminate this discrimination, proposals that could and would be implemented by all the stakeholders: government, business, the community and individuals themselves.

We consulted widely with older people, with people with disability as well as employers of all sizes and across all sectors, with advocates, legal practitioners, policy experts, academics, industry representatives and unions – some of whom I warmly welcome here today.

Our consultations took us all over Australia, so that our understanding reflects what is happening in small remote country towns, as well as in our populous suburbs and our bulging capital cities.

These contributions, diverse as they were, did align with all available data to support the view that far too many older people and people with disability in Australia do not enjoy the basic human right to work.

This is a summary of those data:

  • Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that while people aged 55 years and over make up roughly a quarter of the population,  they only make up 16% of the total Australian workforce. 
  • This age cohort is the fastest growing in Australia, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.


• Labour force participation declines sharply with age: In November 2015, 73.8% of Australians aged 55–59 years were participating in the labour force compared with 56.5% of 60–64 year olds and 12.7% of those aged 65 years and over.
This sharp decline cannot be allowed to continue. The number of over 65s will double by 2055 when life expectancy will be well over 90 for both men and women.

Without the changes we recommend, people who lose their jobs in their 50’s may live up to another forty years without paid employment.

A recent ABS report showed that most people now expect to work until they are 70: they expect to, they want to, but will they find jobs?

When we turn to people with disability as surveyed in 2015, not only is the discrimination worse than that against older people, but it is not improving at all.


53.4% of people with disability were participating in the labour force, compared with 83.2% of people without disability. Not only are people with disability much  more likely to be unemployed than people without disability , they endure  longer periods of unemployment.

These figures haven’t changed significantly for 20 years or so. The persistence of this inequality over a couple of decades when much has happened otherwise to improve our understanding of and support for people with disability sends us a strong signal.

Things will not change by themselves.

Intervention is required to do what market forces alone will not.

Why is this widespread discrimination happening?

People are shut out of work because of widely held underlying assumptions, stereotypes and myths associated with their age or their disability.


• In the prevalence survey we commissioned in 2015, 27% of people over the age of 50 reported experiencing age discrimination at work.
• A third of those who had experienced age discrimination gave up looking for work. 


 In the past year, over 70% of complaints about age discrimination to the Australian Human Rights Commission were in the area of employment.


When we look at the most recent ABS figures for people with disability in employment:

Almost one in 12 Australians with disability (8.6%) reported that they had experienced discrimination or unfair treatment because of their disability in the past year.


A much higher percentage of young people with disability (20.5%) reported experiencing discrimination.


When asked about the source of discrimination, over a quarter of men (28.3%) and more than one in five women (20.8%) who experienced discrimination because of their disability reported that the source of discrimination was an employer.


Without change, especially change of employers’ attitudes young people with disability will face a lifetime of struggle to gain and keep employment.

Apart from the often devastating impact on individuals, discrimination also has significant costs for the Australian economy. There are many recent powerful studies setting out the scale of what we are missing out on.
One model shows that a 7% increase in mature-age labour force participation would raise GDP in 2022 by approximately $25 billion.

Another,  done for the productivity commission, estimated $50 billion could be added to GDP by 2050 if Australia were to move up into the top eight OECD countries for employment of people with disability.

These shifts, 7% more older workers getting jobs: aligning Australia with the stronger OECD performers for disability employment, are not huge.

They are not beyond us

And they would be good for business.

Organisations that are inclusive and diverse report tangible benefits in terms of productivity, performance and innovation. Our report contains many examples of business with deliberate strategies of including g older workers and people with disability, and they are all business that are doing well.

Some outstanding leaders of such businesses have joined us today and I look forward to introducing them to you when we move to our panel discussion.

Despite these positive examples, our major findings confirm that employment discrimination is systemic and requires action at multiple levels.

Attitudes and beliefs need to change. We heard many distressing accounts from older women and men about the way they were viewed in the workplace. I was told:

[SLIDE 10]

Employers look at my grey hair and told me I don’t fit their client or customer base. 

It’s as if I’ve got a use by date on my forehead.
I’ve never felt my age until I had to look for work.
You’re old, why don’t you take long service leave and retire? 
Ageism in employment was so entrenched in some workplaces that people start to believe that this is just the way things are.

[SLIDE 11]

If you’re a 40 year old Aboriginal man or woman, if you still are not employed then the chance of getting future employment is very slim.

This maybe the way things are but they are not the way things have to be.

Attitudes can be changed.

We know in Australia that well focussed and sustained community education and awareness campaigns have changed entrenched attitudes and behaviours, for example, reducing smoking, wearing seat belts and using sun screen. Hence we have recommended information and public education campaign around these issues to government and business leaders.

Turing to jobseekers with disability the Inquiry learned of the pervasive lack of understanding among employers of the range, type and impact of different disabilities, and a perception that workplace adjustments are costly and difficult. One person told me:

[SLIDE 12]

I was with a disability job agency but applied for the job not mentioning my disability… the company continually wanted me to increase my hours even though I couldn't manage. When I told the manager she said if I had of told her I had a disability when I went for the job she wouldn't have hired me. 

And another…

[SLIDE 13]

After completing undergraduate degrees in Commerce and Business, Valerie unsuccessfully applied for more than 170 jobs in her chosen field of accounting. While waiting for one particular interview, Valerie overheard the interviewer say to another colleague on the panel, ‘don’t worry about the next candidate, we are only doing the interview to be seen as doing the right thing’. 

[SLIDE 14]

The report is littered with true stories like these. These experiences take a toll on a person’s self-worth and self-esteem. They undermine a person’s confidence and impact their workforce performance and engagement.  And they keep happening, in all sorts of workplaces.

Of course various governments at various time have introduced policies and funding designed to assist people overcome such discrimination and get jobs. They have provided information and incentives to employers.
Despite being well intentioned, these programs often fail.

The Inquiry found that with some government policies the reduction of benefits that results from earning some income from casual work creates disincentives. Other programs, and I refer specifically to the commonwealth funded jobs services programs have limited impact because they fail to match the individuals’ capacities with the job. These failures resulting from poor performance by publicly funded employment services, paid for by government, can make matters worse. They lead to employer disillusionment. Employers are risk averse, and will say, yes we tried an older person or a person with disability but it didn’t work out so we won’t be doing that again.

In the report I have presented many personal accounts, from disappointed employees and from employers who were willing but got the wrong advice.

These stories and the supporting data tell us that ‘business as usual’ is not enough. Things needs to change – now.

How? Well let me be clear that change to be effective needs to suit all players.

The employment contract is a two-way street…to succeed it must meet the needs of both sides, the employer and the employee.

Government sets the framework, funds incentives for training, wage subsidies, and information programs. If government action does not achieve purpose, public dollars are wasted and cynicism grows.

Let me move briefly to our 56 recommendations. This is a big number, but I hope that the proposals we are putting forward are practical and well-grounded in what employers need and what will work for individuals. They make up a broad national and collaborative approach.

They do not require massive new dollars from government, nor do they impose difficult or overly complicated processes on employers- definitely not an increase in the dreaded red tape.

Some priority commitments for government include:

  • establishing a Minister for Longevity,
  • implementing and reporting on national workforce strategies to lift the labour force participation of older Australian’s and Australian’s with disability;
  • adopting targets for employment of older people and people with disability within the public service;
  • expanding the role of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency to become the Workplace Gender Equality and Diversity Agency.

Today we have the benefit of a panel consisting of four Australian companies who are leading the way, so I would like to focus on what it is employers can do.

Some of our key recommendations to business and employers are:

  • Set your own targets for inclusive workplaces
  • leaders commit to inclusive workplaces,
  • collect baseline data so you can monitor progress
  • ensure that the work environment, including ICT, is fully accessible
  • insist on non-discriminatory recruitment and retention practices
  • offer flexible work arrangements wherever possible
  • facilitate transitions – to retirement, to work in other industries or occupations, or re-entry into the workforce
  • target training for older workers and people with disability, and train managers to manage diversity and inclusion

We have based many of these recommendations on examples of good practice identified over the course of the inquiry.

Many businesses out there do recognise the diverse skills and abilities of older Australians and Australians with disability.

We’re fortunate to be joined this morning by representatives off such exemplary companies: Crown Resorts, FMP Group, TransGrid and Forest Coach Lines.

Shortly, I’ll introduce these special guests.

It’s also worth noting other employers which have made bold commitments and developed innovative programs and policies.

Employers like Accor Hotel Group - Accor have introduced an ‘Experienced Worker’ work experience program for people aged 50 and over, recognising the skills and life experience this group of workers bring. The program involves training for food, beverage and front office services and on-the-job work experience. Accor have reported excellent results.

St John of God Health Care has committed to supporting people with disability get jobs. They have partnered with Disability Employment Services to ensure that candidates shortlisted for interviews includes at least one eligible applicant registered with a DES. Since adopting this practice in July 2013, St John of God Health Care have received over 223 applicants through DES, interviewed 128 and successfully employed 51 people with disability.

And this year, the NSW Public Service became the latest large employer to have announced the introduction of an ‘all roles flex’ policy, with Premier Mike Baird announcing on International Women’s Day this year that 100% of NSW public service jobs will be flexible by 2019 on the basis of ‘if not, why not’.

And we have all heard of Bunnings stunning business success based to a significant extent on their high levels of employment of older workers with relevant trade and other experience.

The Inquiry’s recommendations are cognisant of the realities of the needs of the national economy now and through future decades.

We must ensure that skilled older workers in sectors that are shrinking, such as car manufacturing or coal mining, are not forced into long-term unemployment or involuntary early retirement.

The key to supporting such workers is access to effective skills training that will lead them into growth sectors and jobs that actually exist. We make several recommendations along these lines.

There are new jobs in Australia, plenty of them, for example in the growth of robotics and IT, renewable energy, the expanding aged care and disability sectors, and even the latest submarine building program.

This massive project is expected to create 2,800 Australian jobs. Some of these jobs will be opportunities that older workers, appropriately retrained, should be able to take up. Here I have in mind accelerated mature age apprenticeships.

We know that what works for large companies may not be achievable for SMEs ...but having said that, many small employers we spoke with had very innovative ideas and approaches.

For small businesses owners, greater access to customised support and information will help them employ older people and people with disability whose skills can contribute to their business.

We became crucially aware as we started the inquiry that poor management of health issues accounts for more people being forced out of work prematurely than any other factor.

So we took advice from a panel of health policy experts and recommend initiatives to create healthy workplaces and provide practical support so that older workers who may develop problems associated with ageing can continue in their jobs.
We have recommended further review or change to some existing laws.

The rules around worker’s compensation and insurance, especially income maintenance insurance can act as barriers to people continuing their employment.

In relation to existing anti-discrimination laws, we have proposed some changes in matters of definitions, and improving simplicity for individuals claiming discrimination on a number of protected grounds, e.g., age and disability, or gender and age.

We suggest that some Fair Work provisions in relation to flexibility of hours and unfair dismissal on the grounds of discrimination are due for review.

So we have proposed a few measures of law reform, but most of the report goes to reform of the labour market- to attitudes, policies and practices at all stages of employment.

I am confident that the changes we propose are realistic. They are evidence based and already in place in some workplaces.

This Report is a reflection of the contributions of many people and I am grateful to those who took the time to attend a consultation, write a submission and assist the Inquiry.

I thank my Commissioner colleagues, especially Mick Gooda Indigenous and social justice commissioner who undertook consultations with the indigenous community, and former commissioner Tim Wilson, who also assisted with relevant LGBTI aspects.

I am particularly grateful to the Inquiry team led by Marlene Krasovitsky, and to the distinguished experts who comprised our four expert advisory committees and gave us such sound and fruitful direction.

I trust that the findings and recommendations of this Inquiry will spark action and commitment, and intensify efforts to address employment discrimination against older people and people with disability so that all those who are willing to work can work.

We all stand to gain.

The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner

See Also