From available accounts, it is a frustrating issue for a growing number of Barbadians over the age of 50, especially in an environment of sluggish economic performance which has sharply reduced employment opportunities over the past several years. Actual cases, however, are hard to prove because evidence to substantiate such claims is not always easy to come by.
Though employment discrimination based on age involves the denial of a fundamental human right and is arguably forbidden under the Barbados Constitution, affected persons are generally reluctant to speak publicly about their experience, even if solely for the purpose of public sensitization. There is a real fear among such persons that doing so would only make matters worse for themselves in their vulnerable state as they might be seen by prospective employers as potential troublemakers.
Privately, however, many Barbadians over 50 are relating personal stories about how hard it is to find employment, even though they are suitably qualified and have relevant experience. It seems, they say, that those over 50 years old are being deliberately written off by a policy of exclusion being practised by some employers. Forced in some cases to turn to the informal economy to survive, there are persons who have given up hope of ever working again in formal employment because of the numerous times they have been turned down.
There is a fairly common perception in Barbados today that employers are generally more interested in hiring younger persons because they can pay them far less than an older, experienced and more mature person. Interestingly, trade unions so far have not addressed this issue in any detailed manner, except during the controversial case involving the retirement by the state-run Barbados Investment and Development Corporation (BIDC) of a number of employees who had reached the age of 60, even though the official retirement age has been raised to 67.
It begs the question whether age discrimination in employment is a major concern which aggrieved workers have brought to their unions’ attention, especially in instances where they may have lost jobs through downsizing in recent years and, being still of working age, have encountered difficulties re-entering the job market despite their best efforts.
Does an increasingly powerful interest group like the Barbados Association of Retired Persons (BARP), whose membership includes hundreds of working persons between the ages of 50 and 67, have a position on the issue? What does the Barbados Employers Confederation (BEC) have to say about the perception out there that some employers in their hiring practices are deliberately discriminating against people over 50 because of financial considerations? Perception, as the saying goes, is reality.
Trade unionist Denis DePeiza raised the issue in his weekly Barbados TODAY column two years ago. He noted that age discrimination in employment was forbidden by international conventions under the aegis of the International Labour Organization (ILO), specifically, Conventions 29, 111 and 138 which seek to ensure that all persons, regardless of age, are treated equally and fairly when applying for employment and also in the workplace.
“The principle of fairness is often subject to being compromised, for the simple reason that the issue of subjectivity becomes a defining factor in the engagement process,” DePeiza explained. “As a wave of new entrants come into the workforce on an annual basis and as the demand for jobs grossly outweighs availability, the issue of age, whether intentionally or not, forces its way as a factor for consideration into the recruitment process. Employers, managers and human resource managers masked this exceptionally well.”
It seems, therefore, that reasonable grounds do exist for the Ministry of Labour to carry out an investigation into the claims of age discrimination, considering that Barbadians have a legal right to employment until the age of 67, the fact that the island has an increasingly aging population and Government has made provision for persons to work longer if they choose so to do.
The solution, however, seems to lie in the enactment of an Age Discrimination in Employment Act which would go on the statute books as another piece of legislation promoting the rights of Barbadian workers. The United States has had such legislation in place since 1967. It offers protection to persons over 40 years — both employees and job applicants — from employment discrimination based on age.
Given the concerns out there, it seems taking the route of formal investigation and then legislation may be the best option in terms of ensuring that equal and fair treatment is afforded to one and all.