Sabina Wynn (SW): Hello. I’m Sabina Wynn, Executive Director of the ALRC, and I’m here with Rosalind Croucher, President of the ALRC, discussing some of the issues that have been raised in our Discussion Paper for the Age Barriers to Work inquiry. So, “age barriers to work” – what does this really mean?
Rosalind Croucher (RC): We’re looking at a range of things that might be barriers. Basically three things. First of all, you might be in work and want to keep working – so what would help you stay? Secondly, you may be out of work but want to work – so what would help you get there. And thirdly, you may be nearing retirement – what are the things that are pulling you out of paid work? It means all of those things.
SW: So, we’ve heard from someone, as an example, Marta, she is 64, and a job seeker. She has been looking for work as a personal assistant in any industry. She approached a recruitment agency about possible vacancies but before interviewing her, the agent asks Marta to provide a copy of her birth certificate. Marta is sure that the only reason for this request is that the agent wants to know her age before considering her for any job. Marta doesn’t think she will get any job if people know that she’s 64. Are any of the proposals in the Discussion Paper going to help people like Marta?
RC: That’s a really good example, and it raises a whole range of issues. Most of them, though, are about perceptions – attitudinal and cultural issues concerning older workers. Some of these may be about what employers and recruiters think. Some of it may be about what Marta thinks herself.
If Marta experiences actual discrimination then this is a legal issue and work is going on at the same time as the ALRC’s inquiry looking at all the anti-discrimination legislation.
But if the issue is really the attitudes of people to older workers, that is harder to pin down as a legal issue.
SW: So, can you explain what proposals we’ve made in this regard?
RC: Yes. Because we are looking at legal frameworks – which is more than just specific legislation – we’ve got wider scope. So we have focused on things like the training of recruitment agencies, and employment service providers, but we’ve also looked at ways of recognising best practice through things like employer of choice awards.
SW: What about people who want to stay working – perhaps well into their 70s and beyond? Do we make any proposals that directly concern them?
RC: Flexibility is obviously the big issue here – we’ve heard that the ability to work part-time or flexible hours is crucial for mature age workers to work beyond retirement age. It is all the more important when we see that the likelihood of a person providing care to someone else increases with age and that the majority of carers in Australia are aged 45 years and over.
So what we are proposing, one of the examples, is that the right to request flexible working arrangements under the National Employment Standards be extended to all employees who have caring responsibilities, an amendment that is likely to predominantly benefit mature age workers.
SW: Perhaps it would be useful if you explain what we actually mean by flexibility?
RC: Well, it’s much more than reduced hours. Some want part-time work; some want casual work; and some want to work for blocks of time, take leave and return to work. Others may wish to scale-down and work fewer hours, allowing more time for recreation. But what is clear is that older workers want meaningful flexibility, determined around their capacity. An example, which is not of meaningful flexibility, is one that we heard from a woman called Sophia. She’s in the 60 plus age group and has worked for nearly 30 years as a food service attendant in a hospital kitchen. She is employed on a permanent part-time basis, which enables her at this stage in her life to undertake a number of caring responsibilities for her husband. There were changes made to Sophia’s shifts without consultation or discussion with her, and she lost the same days that she has been doing for almost 30 years. The problem is that on the two days that she had off, she cares for her husband and also attends appointments, which she now cannot attend because of the changes made to her shifts. That clearly is not the kind of flexibility employees would like.
SW: We’ve also looked at people who are on the Age Pension and want to work. Could you discuss the sorts of proposals we’ve made in this area.
RC: The main one we’ve looked at here is in relation to Work Bonus. Now this is something that is designed for people on the Age Pension who want to work in paid work, and not affect their means test, because it allows them to earn up to $250 per fortnight, without it being assessed as income under the Age Pension means test. The ALRC proposes that for that to continue to be a meaningful incentive to work, it needs to be indexed to keep pace with inflation.
SW: The ALRC is also looking at superannuation as a barrier to work.
RC: It may seem a little strange when it’s not a barrier, but as I said at the beginning, we’re looking at things that are also incentives to leave the paid workforce, not just specific barriers to staying. Superannuation has a number of age-based rules. It’s also a very complicated area.
SW: Have we made any proposals?
RC: One example, of a number, is that if people are still genuinely working, we ask – why shouldn’t they be able to keep contributing to their superannuation? We propose that they can.
SW: We are also looking at other areas such as workers compensation and insurance. Can you discuss what some of the issues are here?
RC: In the area of workers compensation, our key concern is to close any gap in coverage, particularly for workers who may not yet have reached Age Pension age. In the area of insurance, the key concerns are that there is appropriate coverage and appropriate products available for older people. Some of this is about law; most, however, is about market.
SW: Thanks Ros. I think it’s important to say that this is the second stage in our process. Earlier in the inquiry process we released an Issues Paper, and now we’ve released our second consultation paper, a Discussion Paper. The things that you’ve been discussing are proposals and we’re really interested to get people’s feedback on the things that we’re proposing, and also perhaps to hear examples from people that may illustrate both the problems that they’re having and possible solutions.
RC: Most definitely. The main thing we need is to get people involved, to let us know what you think, tell us your stories. Because community participation is really essential to all of the ALRC processes. So, subscribe to our e-newsletter, look at the Discussion Paper on our website – everything is available there free. If you want a hard copy you can ask and we’ll send one to you. We are also undertaking another round of national consultation in the latter part of October and through November until the submissions close. But the main thing is we want you involved. Thank you for your work so far, and do get on board and help us with our work.
SW: So the closing date for submissions is 23 November. You can find out more information on our website at www.alrc.gov.au.