‘Willing to Work’ Inquiry Will Examine Discrimination as Barrier to Employment

There are “disturbingly low levels” of employment for older people and those with a disability, “largely as a result of discrimination”, Attorney-General George Brandis has said.

Launching the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)’s ‘Willing to Work’ inquiry yesterday, Brandis said “as a nation” we must reconsider “how we want to treat our fellow Australians”. Under-employment and unemployment have a cost and we need to think about changing stereotypes and examine ways to best accommodate people. The wide-ranging inquiry would examine all obstacles, whether practices, attitudes or laws, to older people and those with a disability from participating in the workforce. Its terms of reference acknowledged discrimination they faced “as a systemic problem”. “As part of its report the Commission may wish to identify best practice examples of recruitment, retention, and of reasonable adjustment in the workplace for older Australians and Australians with a disability.” Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan is to lead the inquiry, which is to report by July 2016.

Ryan has Brandis’s confidence

“I am keen to focus the Commission’s work and resources on matters that have a contemporary and practical relevance”, Brandis said. “As you know, over the last couple of years, the HRC devoted considerable resources to an inquiry that was largely a problem arising from a previous government and which had largely been solved by the current govt. And the diversion of those resources to that inquiry attracted criticism from the Prime Minister and me.”

HRC must avoid rhetoric: Brandis

“An effective human rights agenda is one which focusses on outcomes, not rhetoric,” Brandis (above) said. “And that is one of the reasons why I asked the Commission to prioritise this inquiry, which the govt will fully support and hope the Commission in the allocation of its priorities will fully support as well.”Brandis said he has “confidence in the leadership abilities” of Ryan. Ryan earlier told the gathering HRC president Professor Gillian Triggs was unavoidably absent at a Melbourne event.

‘Too easy’ to avoid discrimination laws

Comparable OECD countries are far ahead of us in employing older people and those with a disability, Ryan said, noting Australia was ranked 21st out of 29 for the latter. However, some companies do it well, she said. Ryan nominated Westpac where 12% of its employees have a disability (though she noted 15% of Australia’s population has a disability); ANZ which is rolling out a whole-of-business strategy to ensure all its services and products are accessible to people with a disability because it “recognised the business benefit” of doing so; and Bunnings, which has made such a success of employing older people, ie ex-tradespeople who have the knowledge but no longer the physical strength. She said everybody had an interest in stopping age bias as, hopefully, it was something we would all be vulnerable to, eventually.

She acknowledged recruitment could be a hard area to crack because it was “too easy” to avoid discrimination laws during the process. Most organisations recruit using an agency whose business depends on being paid when they have successfully placed people. “If they think you’re too old”, or that the employer might think so, they won’t put you forward, Ryan said. When rejecting older people how often was the phrase “over-qualified, whatever that meant,” used, she asked. But she was amazed how often employers actually said they “think you’re too old”, she said.

This article was written by Paul Karp and first appeared in Discrimination Alert. Click here for a free trial of the fortnightly news service.

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