IT'S an employment scandal nobody on the Gold Coast will admit to - mature age workers exploited by employers who sack them if they dare complain.
Now Gold Coast lawyer Bruce Simmonds has exposed the issue, saying he has at least 20 mature age workers suing their former employers for unfair dismissal.
He says age discrimination in the workforce is rife as older workers are made redundant and undergo retraining for new roles where too often they are treated as a 'slave class' worker.
While the Fair Work Ombudsman uses more timid language, it agrees age discrimination is an emerging issue and accounts for the top five discrimination complaints received since 2009.
"The majority of age discrimination complaints come from mature-age workers, with only a small number from young workers," a spokesman for the Ombudsman says.
Last year, the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane ruled on the Fair Work Ombudsman's first litigation relating to discrimination on the grounds of age, finding that a restaurant operator had breached workplace laws by telling a long-serving employee his employment would be terminated on his 65th birthday.
The agency secured penalties of $29,150 against Gold Coast-based Thai restaurant operator Theravanish Investments and its directors for contraventions of age discrimination and record-keeping laws and compensation of $10,000 for the employee.
Simmonds, litigation director with Gold Coast firm Parker Simmonds Solicitors and Lawyers, warns that the government's push for mature age workers to stay in the workforce longer has a dark side as these workers are prone to be exploited and mistreated by employers.
"I have 20 or more clients who share a similar story," he says.
"They are all mature age, late 50s or in their 60s, made redundant from previous jobs and needing to stay in the workforce. There are agencies that score thousands in government incentives to place these people in new jobs, but too often the new jobs are a nightmare for the worker."
Simmonds says the practice is occurring with ostensibly respectable Gold Coast companies hiring older workers who are paying bare minimum wages and imposing unfair working conditions.
"If the worker protests, they are sacked or threatened with the sack, knowing it can be hard for older workers to find a new job.
"Intimidation is used to silence them. Older workers are the people with the least rights in the workforce and generally the unions can't or won't do anything to help them.
"Part of the problem is the mindset of younger bosses who can't relate to older workers or have no respect for them."
Simmonds says distressed clients say they are often treated with disrespect by younger bosses, treated like idiots or given menial tasks either to persuade them to resign or because the boss did not trust them with more responsibility.
"It's tragic because mature age workers can be a golden asset for an employer.
"They are imbued with a long-term work ethic, tremendous workplace experience and a professional attitude to their job. They could teach their bosses a thing or two about personnel management."
Simmonds expects the problem to get worse as an aging population is forced to work longer before pension age.
"This crisis really illustrates how some younger bosses are really unqualified to administer older workers. There are government subsidies and incentives to place older people in the workforce but we need specialist training for middle management to administer them."
Simmonds says there is a growing number of compensation claims from older workers claiming unfair dismissal.
"In the past you'd see them for 30-40 year olds; now it's people in their late 50s and 60s."
The Fair Work Ombudsman receives about 25,000 requests for assistance from employees each year. Discrimination make up less than 1 per cent of these matters and most are about wages and conditions.
"However, with Australia facing an ageing population, we anticipate, like other agencies, that age discrimination will become a focus," says the spokesman for the Ombudsman.
"Previously, we have heard from mature-age workers alleging behaviours including employers telling them they are too old for roles they have applied for or enquired about and employers using ageist language to create a hostile working environment for mature-age workers.
"As such, we are working to educate employers that this type of conduct is unlawful and that serious penalties can apply. We also want employees to be aware of what their rights are so they can recognise unlawful and discriminatory treatment if it occurs and come to us for assistance."
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