A tobacco firm discriminated against a 66-year-old employee by refusing to offer him the same redundancy terms as younger staff, a tribunal has ruled.
Bernard Barlow worked for Japan Tobacco International (JTI) – formerly known as Gallahers’ factory – for 27 years.
When the Ballymena factory announced it was closing, he was excluded from the firm’s “enhanced redundancy” scheme as it was only available to under 65s.
This was despite the Default Retirement Age having been scrapped in 2011.
Legislation came into force in October that year which prevented employers from compulsorily retiring workers once they reached the age of 65, and gave older people the right to stay in work past their pension age if they wished.
In May 2014, the then 63-year-old Mr Barlow informed his employer that he intended to remain in his job as a machine worker after his 65th birthday.
However, JTI was making plans to shut down its Ballymena factory, and the firm confirmed the closure decision in January 2015.
The tobacco company offered its staff an enhanced redundancy package, but employees over the age of 65 were only offered statutory redundancy pay.
Mr Barlow refused to accept the lesser amount and took a case against the firm, alleging it had discriminated against him on grounds of his age.
“I had worked for Gallaher’s for 27 years and hadn’t had a sick day in over 10 years”, he said in a statement following the tribunal.
“I considered myself to be a loyal and dedicated employee. It was hurtful and upsetting to be told after all those years of service that I was being treated differently than some colleagues simply because of my age.”
Mr Barlow, who is originally from England, began working for Gallahers in Hyde, Greater Manchester, in 1988.
When the Hyde factory closed about 10 years later, he was offered a transfer to the Ballymena plant and he moved to set Northern Ireland with his wife and children.
He said he felt “humiliated” by JTI’s handling of his severance package.
“I found it offensive to be excluded from the company’s redundancy scheme just because of my age and it is still distressing when I consider how I have been treated.”
The industrial tribunal found that JTI’s redundancy scheme, set up in 2009, was not amended to reflect the government’s decision to scrap the Default Retirement Age in 2011.
It accepted that the firm was “genuine in its desire to see that the resources for enhanced redundancies payments would be spread fairly and equitably across the workforce”.
However, the tribunal added that the “inescapable reality was that those employees who, like Mr Barlow, were over 65, were completely excluded from the benefits of the company’s enhanced severance scheme”.
The former factory worker was assisted in bringing the case by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.
In a statement, its chief commissioner, Dr Michael Wardlow, said: “Figures show a definite trend of people over 65 remaining in work since the removal of the Default Retirement Age and given the state pension age continues to increase, this trend is unlikely to change.
“Employers must accept that older workers are entitled to the same consideration as workers of other ages when decisions regarding their contracts, performance standards, continued employment or in this case redundancy are being made.”
A decision on compensation is expected at a later date.