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Senior citizens and age discrimination

“Why then must ordinary government workers retire upon reaching 65 years, when there are others in the government service who are allowed to hold elective or appointive public office beyond the age of 65?

Victor Avecilla

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One interesting topic which arose in the course of the COVID-19 crisis concerns senior citizens.

At the height of the enhanced community quarantine enforced in Luzon, a certain study suggested that senior citizens are more prone to contracting COVID-19 than younger persons are. With that revelation, many local government units began prohibiting senior citizens from leaving their places of abode for the duration of the quarantine.

Senior citizens, particularly those who have no younger companions living with them, protested. They need to go out and buy supplies and medication.

Due to mounting protests, local government units gave in and lifted the travel restrictions on senior citizens, but only if they need to buy supplies and medication.

That manifest discrimination against senior citizens prompted many elderly people to assert that being a senior citizen should not be equated with weakness and disability. A number of senior citizens in their seventies but who are still actively involved in private enterprise, politics, civics and similar endeavors were cited.

The term “senior citizen” wasn’t in vogue decades ago. Well into the 1990s, one was either below 65 years, which meant that one had no excuse for not working, or 65 years or older, which meant that one has to retire from employment in either the government service or the private sector.

At present, Philippine laws provide that any person who is 60 years old or older is a senior citizen. Many people between 60 and 65 don’t mind being considered a senior citizen on account of the discounts and special treatment that go with the classification.

Retirement from one’s employment is a different matter.

The compulsory retirement age for employees in the private sector is 65 years. There are a few exceptions though, as in the case of household workers and those who are part of the informal economy. Other than those, the age of 65 inevitably meant retirement.

Retirement in the government service is another story.

Philippine civil service laws set the compulsory retirement age of bureaucrats at 65 years. That arbitrary cut off age goes back to the 19th century, to the time of German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, when life expectancy was 37 years.

Contemporary studies indicate that with advancements in the fields of health care and medicine, life expectancy today is certainly beyond 70 years.

The late Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said keeping the compulsory retirement age in the government service at 65 constitutes age discrimination because many government employees are still productive even beyond that age.

Santiago observed that many civil servants have obtained specialized competence after years of public service, and it will be a waste of human resources if they must retire at age 65.

In May 2011, Senator Santiago sponsored Senate Bill 2797. It sought to increase the compulsory retirement age of government employees to 70 years, and to remove the age discrimination suffered by seasoned public servants who are still capable of doing their work even upon reaching 65 years.

Examples that support Santiago’s observation are the judiciary, elective public office and Cabinet appointments.

The Constitution sets the mandatory retirement age of justices and judges at 70 years. Chief Justice Enrique Fernando remained sharp and witty long after he retired in 1985 upon turning 70.

Juan Ponce Enrile and the late Arturo Tolentino carried out their duties as senators with efficiency even after they were above 65 years in age.

Serafin Cuevas was Justice Secretary when he was way past 70 years old.

Why then must ordinary government workers retire upon reaching 65 years, when there are others in the government service who are allowed to hold elective or appointive public office beyond the age of 65?

That’s not only age discrimination as observed by Santiago, but a patent violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution! Senior citizen rights advocate Atty. Romulo Macalintal should look into this matter.

Unfortunately, Senator Santiago’s bill did not ripen into a law, and she passed away in September 2016. Thus, the age discrimination in government service continues.

After the ABS-CBN franchise controversy is over, Congress ought to continue where Senator Santiago left.

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