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Equal employment opportunities commissioner Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo has raised concerns older workers might find it more difficult to find a new job or pathway — especially in a crisis environment.
Her concerns were backed by Etu union, and data appears to support those worries.
Rio Tinto numbers show about 48% of 980 employees at Tiwai Point Smelter are in their 50s or over.
Ms Sumeo said she had heard during discussions with workers over 50 that they had struggled to re-enter the workforce once they had left a job, despite having multiple skills, experience and strong work ethics.
"I further worry for workers from Tiwai who may have worked for a very long time doing a particular job, and may not feel able to learn new skills, adjust to job expectations, or be offered an apprenticeship that will staircase them into a different field of paid work," she said.
She said age discrimination in employment was a big barrier to equality in the country — even for highly skilled workers.
"I worry that during this crisis, the competition for work and employers having a larger pool of potential workers to choose from will exacerbate discrimination by age.
"A lot of older workers are not seeking an easy transition into retirement, but rather challenging and rewarding roles."
Ms Sumeo believed a culture change was needed as, by 2038, one in five people nationally would be over 65.
New Zealanders in general were living longer and wanted to be part of the workforce for more time than before, she said.
She believed people should develop some "humility" and start to value people who were "perceived as "old workers".
"We need each other, we all contribute in different ways, we all count if we are going to recover as a nation from this economic crisis."
Etu negotiation specialist Joe Gallagher agreed and said it was one of the reasons the union had been pushing for a just transition package since Rio Tinto’s announcement in July it would shut the smelter.
Training and support for the workforce on a long-term basis was "critically important".
"New Zealand has an ageing workforce and it is extremely difficult for people highly skilled and who worked in those places for 20 to 30 years to just transition to another job."
Rio Tinto data also showed the average length of employment at the smelter was 15.7 years.
A just transition package would allow some of the workers to carefully plan their retirement and give others the chance to be retrained to join another industry.
"Once people get a high-skilled and well-paid job, they usually tend to stay there.
"They build their families and lives around the community, so that’s why it is so important to have a managed transition in place."