By Michael Edwards for AM
Big ask: Unions say telling manual workers to toil past the age of 65 is not on (ABC News: Giulio Saggin, file photo)
The Federal Government is facing a protest from two of the country’s biggest blue-collar unions against its plans to raise the pension age to 67 by 2023.
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) say it is unpalatable to expect people in arduous jobs to work to that age.
The pension age increase was announced in the Federal Budget and unions say they will fight the decision.
They say it is not only bad for workers but it also represents a false economy, as the age increase will only lead to more compensation claims from older workers.
John Byrnes, a 62-year-old Sydney construction worker, says his line of work is tough at that age.
“The last five years of my life, five to seven years, I’ve had more things go wrong with me,” he said.
“Honestly, six weeks ago I just had both my knees operated on; I got a crook back and bad shoulder, arthritis. These are age things but a lot of it is work-related. Just doing heavy work for a long period of time. You just break down, the body breaks down.”
Mr Byrnes says while he is looking forward to his retirement in a few years’ time, the increase in the pension age range has alarmed many of his younger colleagues.
He says the Government is taking a free kick at vulnerable people.
“I was scandalised, honestly,” he said.
“I didn’t like it at all. I was in the smoker’s shed at work. There’s about 30 of us sort of sitting in the same shed at smoko and it was a big subject. It was me and a couple of guys around about the same age as me and it was a bit of black humour. We said, ‘Oh well, we’re lucky, we’re escaping that’.
“But the guys running about in their early-50s, mid-50s, well it sort of sunk in. They weren’t happy, you know? And I don’t blame them. I don’t blame them at all.”
Mr Byrnes says blue-collar jobs such as construction are hard enough at the best of times and he says it is ridiculous to think someone over the age of 65 could manage them.
It is an issue which the CFMEU and AMWU intend to fight the Government about.
The unions have written to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd relating their concerns about raising the retirement age.
The national secretary of the CFMEU, John Sutton, says he is astonished by the policy.
“Many of our members of course left school at age 15 or 16,” he said.
“They’ve been working with their bodies in heavy industry of one sort or another for many years. By the time you reach 65 you’ve basically done about 50 years in hard physical labour.
“To be turning around and saying to people that ‘I’m sorry, they’re not going to be getting the aged pension, they’ve got to work on to age 67′, is a pretty big ask.
“A lot of our building workers’ bodies are not in very good shape by the age of 50, let alone 67, so we think that this decision needs a serious rethink in relation to workers doing heavy manual work.”
Mr Sutton says if the change is about saving money then it is a false economy.
“If they really are going to be telling people at 65 and 66 they’ve got to work on in manual industries then I anticipate a hell of a lot of injuries and a hell of a lot of downtime,” he said.
“And I don’t see where that would actually make money for employers or the Commonwealth.”
The Federal Government says increasing the pension age is a responsible reform to meet the challenge of an ageing population and the economic impact it will have for all Australians.
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister says Australia’s shift in pension age is in line with what is happening in other countries such as the USA, Germany and Denmark.