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The cruelty of age discrimination

‘There are others who feel the way I do and have experienced the same circumstances, but only I and one other of my colleagues were willing to come forward and speak of the injustice that is currently taking place with the practice of mandatory retirement. I am not afraid.’ Cecil Whitecross

, avid sportsman, age 65 years old, forced to retire because of his age

This is the last in a series of articles by Age Concern Bermuda that seek to highlight the most critical social issues facing the ageing population of Bermuda. Today’s article focuses on how mandatory retirement at age 65 years old is affecting a healthy, vibrant older population that is willing and able to work.The saying goes that 60 is the new 40, and for retired, 65-year-old Custodian, Cecile Whitecross even the age of 40 seems far too old.

Mr Whitecross is in peak form, running at least seven miles a day. He boasts that he runs over the steep Knapton Hill daily and has no problem in keeping up with his younger running partner. Mr. Whitecross is in such good form that he has been running in the Bermuda Marathon Derby for the past 16 years.

One would think that with all of his vitality that Mr. Whitecross would be more than capable of handling the physical demands of his previous employment as a Custodian at a public primary school. However, when the conversation changes from his excellent physical condition to his recent forced retirement, Mr Whitecross’ tone quickly changes to anger and disappointment.

Cecil Whitecross started as a public school Custodian over a decade ago. A painter by trade, Mr Whitecross began as a part-time employee at Gilbert Institute but soon moved into a full-time position at the school. This was shortly after his wife passed away and the new role gave him a new zest for living.

While at the school, Mr. Whitecross recalls going over and above his role as a Custodian.

“I would always help at the annual school sports day in the running races, and we had a lunch time running club with the kids that I was a part of,” he says. “I loved them and they loved me.”

Although enforcing mandatory retirement is an option that the Ministry of Education can exercise at its discretion, Mr Whitecross did not envision that there would be a need for him to retire in the immediate future. As far as he was concerned, he was physically capable of doing the job, meeting expectations and was a reliable and consistent employee. Nevertheless, shortly before his 65th birthday he received a letter from the Human Resource Department indicating that he was subject to retirement at the end of the school year, although no specific date was given.

He had a glimmer of hope, however. The letter stated that should he be able to prove that he was physically capable of carrying out his duties, with his supervisor’s consent, an extension of employment could be provided.

Mr Whitecross says he completed all that the letter asked of him but to no avail. A month later he received a second letter that indicated that his request had been rejected. “My first reaction was anger! Soon after, I had the opportunity to tell my story to

The Royal Gazette and I took it.” He explained. “There are others who feel the way I do and have experienced the same circumstances, but only I, and one other of my colleagues were willing to come forward and speak of the injustice that is currently taking place with the practice of mandatory retirement. I am not afraid.”

Mr Whitecross misses his job. He recalls the races with the children on sports day.

“From time to time I see some of the children while I am out in the public and they ask me why I am no longer at the school. It breaks my heart.”

Mr Whitecross points out that he has been working with the Bermuda Industrial Union to see if his case can be over turned. “I understand that some retired teachers have been allowed to return to work, but what about people like me? Am I any less valuable?”

Age Concern inquiries to The Bermuda Public Service Union, The Bermuda Industrial Union and the Bermuda Union of Teachers reveal that all three unions have acknowledged that concerns regarding mandatory retirement have been raised within their membership. Although neither union has a publicly documented position on the subject there appears genuine concern and empathy towards those workers who need and want to work.

In the meantime, Mr Whitecross explains that if he had the money he would sue. He says he misses the old Bermuda where Bermudians would all rally together to help one another, and a good labourer, despite his age, was valued and not disposable.

Still, even given these discriminatory circumstances Mr Whitecross refuses to be cast away. In light of a financial necessity for him to remain working he has successfully secured a part-time job, falling back on his original trade as a painter. He says Bermuda is very expensive and he will have to work for as long as he can. However he explains: “If things get too bad I will consider leaving Bermuda to go and live with my only daughter overseas. I hope it never comes to that. I love Bermuda, it is my birthplace; it is my home.”

In the 2008, Age Concern STATS report, 60 percent of seniors surveyed indicated that they were retired while 22 percent reported that they continued to have full-time jobs. As the global economic landscape changes will the practice of mandatory prove good or bad news for older workers in Bermuda? Will the traditional retirement of leisure be a thing of the past or will the new norm be a life work experience that is extended for as long as possible? Should age be a factor in one’s ability to earn a living?

In the 2012, Throne Speech, the Government of Bermuda has promised to address age discrimination by adapting the principles of the UK Equality Act. While this move is welcomed, it is hoped that the adoption of the Equality Act does not translate into a further delay of including age as a basis of discrimination, which can be simply achieved through adding the word ‘age’ to our current Human Rights Act today.

Mr Whitecross and his colleagues deserve the right to work past 65 years old within their lifetime.

Are you positive that your political representative will make the change that is necessary to help people like Mr. Whitecross within the next sitting of Parliament? Be sure to ask the question to ensure that workplace discrimination is eradicated within your generation.

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Published December 13, 2012 at 8:00 am (Updated December 12, 2012 at 8:35 pm)

The cruelty of age discrimination

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