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There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Sri Lanka is progressing forward at a rapid pace. Since the end of the civil war in 2009, progress can be seen in all aspects of daily life – swish restaurants popping up around the city; clean and green spaces to retreat to; well-dressed people commuting to and from work; plenty of opportunities for further education and a thriving retail sales atmosphere. The mood is upbeat to say the least. However, there is one area in which Sri Lanka seems to not only be static, but in fact, retreating inexorably. That is, the process of hiring employees.

In any developed country workers enjoy ‘Equal Opportunity’. This means it is against the laws of the land to discriminate against anyone in the workplace because of their actual or assumed age. Employees are protected from discrimination at all stages of employment including recruitment, workplace terms and conditions and dismissal.

However in Sri Lanka, not only are the advertisements for hiring persons for jobs overtly and blatantly discriminatory when it comes to age, some advertisers even state their preference of the would-be candidate’s religion! Scan the employment pages of the newspapers and 90 per cent of advertisements for jobs would be age-specific. Advertisers would state in the strongest terms “Age should be below 25”. This habit is not only in total contradiction to equal opportunity employment but it would also possibly shut out recruitment of the most suitable candidate for the position simply because he or she was over the specified age limit.

Where does that leave the employer?  Definitely in the murky situation of wading through an age-specific staff pool that may fit the age requirements but possibly fail at the job requirements. Finding a candidate that fits both requirements would indeed be a bonus for the employer.

Travel to Europe and the hospitality industry flies the flag sky-high for the mature aged worker.  Silver haired maitre d’hotels and waiters provide their dignified brand of service gleaned over a veritable lifetime to their customers. In turn, the customers feel special and validated. This is not to say that younger staff members are incapable of providing the same service, but that age, maturity and experience is celebrated and revered. Somehow in Sri Lanka, it seems to be reviled and rejected.

In Australia for example, in the state of Victoria, Equal Opportunity Rights are strictly enforced discouraging stereotypes and assumptions about young people and mature workers that can have a big influence on decisions in the workplace. Employees are protected from discrimination at all stages of employment including recruitment, workplace terms and conditions, return to work after illness or pregnancy or dismissal and retrenchment. People are also protected from discriminatory advertising that may deter them from applying for a role.
Age discrimination in employment can include:

*  Advertising for someone to join a ‘dynamic, young team’
*  Not interviewing someone because they are too young or too old to ‘fit in’ with other staff
*  Not employing younger workers because it’s assumed that they’ll quickly move on to another job
*  Not employing mature workers because it’s assumed that they’ll soon retire
*  Not providing training opportunities for young or mature workers because ‘it’s not worth it’
*  Making choices around redundancy, or forcing someone to retire, because of their age.

It would most certainly be in Sri Lanka’s interests to revisit the very valuable job pool of mature-aged workers. Not only do they add to workplace diversity, but they could double up as mentors and motivators to the younger staff members. Most employers prefer to hire a pretty 25-year-old girl to manage a front desk of an institution. While that might be the norm that is generally followed in the country, mixing the staff pool up with different age groups might serve as an advantage. Basing the hiring process merely on the visual is not just sexist but would not serve the establishment’s goals at optimum levels. What should be important is the quality of service that the employee dispenses rather than the visual aspect.

In developed countries, a concept called ‘positive duty’ exists. An employer has a duty to take reasonable measures to prevent discrimination from happening, rather than just respond to complaints that arise. This is called a ‘positive duty’. It means that an employer needs to take proactive steps to eliminate discrimination. For example this could mean scanning their environment and considering if recruitment and employment policies and processes unreasonably bar people of certain age groups from being employed or continuing to work. An employer is charged with the responsibility of effecting changes to address this.

Examples of age discrimination
Shehani is asked her age at a job interview and then refused the position because the employer wants a ‘more mature’ person for the role.

Varun, aged 55, attends a job interview and is asked, ‘What do you want this job for at this late stage of your life?’ His application is unsuccessful.

Mala is employed as a casual employee at a shop. She is made redundant and replaced by a younger person. The manager reveals that he wanted to create a ‘new upbeat feel’ to the shop to attract youthful customers.

Rohan notices his younger co-workers at the factory are receiving training on new machinery. When he asks why he has not been invited to the training sessions, Rohan’s supervisor tells him he is getting a bit old to learn new tricks and should stick to what he knows.

Discrimination against mature age workers is widespread. Mature aged workers commonly complain that they are discriminated against because of their age when applying for jobs, overlooked for training or promotion, or pressured into taking redundancy packages or retirement. Fostering Sri Lanka’s culture of age discrimination and compulsory retirement law is not only bad for business but also costly for employers and the community.