The Equality Tribunal has issued its latest determination on the topical question of age discrimination and compulsory retirement.*
The complainant here was a winchman. The role of a winchman is to hang from a helicopter wire whilst rescuing people. The claimant's contract of employment provided that he retire at 55 years of age. In accordance with this provision his contract was terminated. The claimant said that forcing him to retire at 55 amounted to age discrimination and was not objectively justified. In its defence, the employer said that Section 34 (4) of the Employment Equality Acts permitted the application of compulsory retirement ages and exempts such treatment from the ambit of age discrimination.
The Equality Officer (the EO) said that he was obliged to construe Section 34 (4) in light of Article 6.1 of the Directive (2004/78/EC) which meant that before a private employer could rely on a retirement age in the contract of employment it must satisfy a court that it is objectively and reasonably justified by a legitimate aim and that the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary. In this particular case the aim was to:
- protect the health and safety of winchmen;
- to protect the health and safety of the people who require rescue; and
- to ensure the operational capacity and proper functioning of a professional search and rescue service.
The EO found that these three reasons amounted to a legitimate aim. He then went on to examine the second stage of the test i.e. whether the means of achieving those aims were appropriate and necessary. The EO took the view that given there is research which indicates that a person's respiratory capacity, musculature and endurance diminish with age, the operation of a mandatory retirement age of 55 by the respondent was an appropriate and necessary response to achieve the aims set out.
The case is important because it makes clear that a private employer who sets a compulsory retirement age must be able to justify the setting of such a retirement age by pointing to a legitimate aim of the business and by showing that the setting of such a retirement age is an appropriate and necessary means of achieving that aim.
* Saunders v CHC Ireland Limited DEC- E2011-142