By Keith Leslie

TORONTO (CP) - Workers in Ontario will no longer be forced to retire from their jobs at age 65 and will have the right to continue working if they want under a law that takes effect Tuesday.

The legislature passed the bill last December to scrap mandatory retirement, but gave employers a one-year grace period to prepare for the change.

"As of Dec. 12, it will be illegal to force somebody to retire at the age of 65 because of their age," Labour Minister Steve Peters said in an interview.

"Workers should be allowed to choose when to retire based on their circumstances and priorities."

Peters said the Ontario Human Rights Code was also amended to protect people aged 65 and over from age discrimination for most employment purposes, but noted no one would be forced to work longer than they want to.

"There's no obligation on the employee side to have to stay on," he said. "That will be your choice to continue on or not."

In fact, Peters said the legislation does not impose a new age limit on people in the Ontario workforce.

"There's no limit that forces somebody to retire at a particular age," he said.

"We don't believe because of your age that you should be forced to retire. If you're mentally and physically fit, you should be able to continue to work."

The Ontario Federation of Labour said it's worried the government is preparing to increase the age at which people can access the Canada Pension Plan, noting that's what happened in Great Britain and the United States after those jurisdictions abolished mandatory retirement at age 65.

"So what's really going on here is they're paving the way for people to work longer, mainly because of the fact we're all living longer," said OFL president Wayne Samuelson.

"This is backroom strategists looking forward and getting some of the changes made today that are going to result in people working a lot longer 20 or 25 years down the road."

NDP labour critic Peter Kormos said employers won't be as willing to make allowances for older workers who aren't as physically capable as they once were if there's no fixed date for their retirement.

"What we're going to witness now is a significant increase in workers being dismissed for cause prior to reaching the traditional cutoff age," said Kormos. "Employers are going to fear that without a retirement age . . . they're going to be 'stuck' with that worker until he or she is 90."

Kormos said while many professionals like doctors and lawyers already work past age 65, most labourers want to retire as early as possible with a good pension.

"It was absurd for this government to be telling them that it would condone the underfunding of pensions, and compensate for that by telling workers to keep on working because you've got to, not because you want to."

But Conservative labour critic Gerry Martiniuk said it only makes sense to allow workers to stay on the job as long as they want, especially with so many baby boomers close to retiring.
"I personally think it's a good thing, but of course I'm biased because I didn't retire at the age of 65," said the 69-year-old politician and lawyer.
"People are living longer and are in much better health and many of my friends wanted to continue working, and were very, very angry that they were forced to end their careers at 65."

Copyright 2006 Canadian Press