Willing to Work: The National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination against Older Australians and Australians with Disability

Susan Ryan AO
 The Hon Susan Ryan AO  Age Discrimination Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission

As Age and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, I am committed to ensuring that older people and people with disability, including those from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, are included in every way in our society and enjoy equality of opportunity with all Australians.

The right to work is a fundamental human right. In today’s workplaces however, too many older people and people with disability are denied this right. Why do so many of our employers decide against hiring those who are over 50, or that have a disability, despite their skills and experience?

The age at which people could be eligible for the Age Pension is 65, yet only one in three Australians aged over 55 years is participating in the labour force[i] (ABS, Sept 2010). What are the rest doing? Too many are struggling on Newstart or the Disability Support Pension, and are regularly refused the chance even to be interviewed for a job.

About half of people with disability aged 15-64 were either in employment or looking for work in 2012 – compared with over 80% of people without disability (ABS, 2012). How can this shocking waste of human capital be justified? We are all the losers here. Employers are missing out on skilled workers, taxpayers are paying for unnecessarily high welfare bills.

International data ranks Australia 11th out of 34 OECD nations for employment rates of people aged 55-64 (OECD, 2014) and 21st out of 29 OECD nations for employment rates of people with disability (OECD, 2010).

Why is it that in Australia, workplace discrimination against older people and people with disability is worse than among many of our OECD peers? What stops our employers from giving these capable and skilled people a fair go?

Individuals who are unfairly denied the opportunity to work are also denied the independence, dignity and sense of purpose that work brings. Correcting this unfairness and waste is central to my work at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

In March this year, Attorney-General George Brandis referred to the Commission a National Inquiry into Employment Discrimination against Older Australians and Australians with Disability.

This Inquiry is timely and much-needed. The terms of reference require us to examine all practices, attitudes and Commonwealth laws that deny or diminish equal participation in employment for older people and people with disability.  

As a result of what we learn over the course of this Inquiry, we will make recommendations as to Commonwealth laws that should be made or amended, or action that should be taken by governments and employers to make a big dent in employment discrimination.

We are in the middle of extensive consultations with businesses, advocacy groups, older people, people with disability, leading researchers and other stakeholders. So far, our team of eight people has attended over 38 consultations and meetings and has met with almost 350 people in Sydney, Parramatta, Geelong, Melbourne, Canberra, Mount Isa, Townsville, Brisbane and Newcastle. We are also conducting roundtable discussions with DCA member organisations from across the business, government and not-for-profit sectors. By the end of this year we will have visited the rest of Australia and met with many more people, learning about their experiences and inviting suggestions for change.

We are beginning to identify some recurring themes, including negative and uninformed employer attitudes to hiring and retention, the absence of quite easily made workplace adjustments, and the need for much better training of managers.

The effects of discrimination are compounded when age and disability intersect with other characteristics like gender and ethnicity. The employment rate among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability is significantly lower (around 13%) than among Indigenous people without disability (around 51%) (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, May 2011).

A report by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural affairs found that among people over 55 living in Australia, workforce participation was lower – and unemployment rates higher – for those from CALD backgrounds (National Seniors, 2011).

We can change this terrible picture, but we need input from all affected and the decision makers. We are keen to hear from people from different backgrounds, employees and employers. We want to build a more comprehensive, up to date picture of the situation for older people and people with disability from CALD backgrounds in employment.

For more information on the inquiry, consultations or the submissions process, we invite you to visit our website: http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/disability-rights/projects/willing-work-national-inquiry-employment-discrimination-against.

If you feel you have experienced age, disability or racial discrimination at work, you can also contact the Australian Human Rights Commission for advice or to make a complaint on 1300 656 419.

[i] The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines the labour force as people employed (including underemployed, full-time and part-time workers and self-employed people) and unemployed (including youth, long-term unemployed). A person who is not classified as either employed or unemployed is not in the labour force.


The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission

Susan Ryan was appointed as Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner on 30 July 2011 for a five year term.

Susan was appointed Disability Discrimination Commissioner in 2014, in addition to her responsibilities as Age Discrimination Commissioner. She commenced her new appointment on 12 July 2014.

Up until her appointment as Commissioner, Susan was the Independent Chair of the IAG and NRMA Superannuation Plan; pro chancellor and Council member at UNSW from 1999 to 2011; chaired the Australian Human Rights Group since 2008, and was Women’s Ambassador for ActionAid Australia.

She was CEO of ASFA, the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia from 1993-1998. She continued her involvement in superannuation as President of AIST, the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees from 2000 to 2007. She was a founding member of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors and the ASX Corporate Governance Council.

From 1975 to 1988, Susan was Senator for the ACT, becoming the first woman to hold a Cabinet post in a federal Labor Government. She served in senior portfolios in the Hawke Government as Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women and Special Minister of State. 

As Education Minister, Susan saw school retention rates double and universities and TAFEs grow significantly. She pioneered extensive anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation, including the landmark Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Affirmative Action Act 1986.

She was awarded an AO for services to the Australian parliament in 1990 and an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of New South Wales in 2012. Susan has also been awarded Honorary Doctorates by Macquarie University, Canberra University and the University of South Australia.

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