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Legal loophole allows genetic discrimination in the workplace

30th Sep 2003
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GeneWatch UK, the TUC and the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP) are calling for changes to the law to prevent employers from refusing people jobs on the basis of genetic test results.

A timely new report, 'Genetic Testing in the Workplace' [PDF] has been published, as the Human Genetics Commission (HGC) meets to consider the Government’s response to its recommendations on genetic discrimination.

The GeneWatch report reveals that:

  • Genetic tests cannot accurately predict which workers will suffer future disability or illness. Many false test results are likely.
  • Despite their poor predictive value, many employers wish to use genetic test results and many research projects are seeking to identify people who are ‘genetically susceptible’ to workplace hazards.
  • If genetic tests were used, large numbers of people would need to be excluded from employment to try to prevent a single case of workplace illness. Workplace hazards affect everyone - not just people with ‘bad genes’ - so the remaining workers would still be at risk.
  • People with adverse genetic test results but no symptoms are not protected by the existing Disability Discrimination Act.

    "Picking and choosing workers to suit hazardous environments or cut pensions costs is totally unacceptable," said Dr Helen Wallace, Deputy Director of GeneWatch UK. "The Government should act now to close the loophole in the law. Worker exclusion must not replace employers’ obligations to clean up workplaces for all."

    TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: "We want the Government to make sure everyone has an equal right to succeed at work, whatever their genetic inheritance. We should be promoting opportunities for all, not penalising people because of their genes."

    Andy Rickell, Director of the BCODP, said: "We are very concerned about this pernicious means of disability discrimination and totally oppose it."

    GeneWatch also criticised the Government’s recent White Paper on genetics in the NHS, published in June this year, as it made no commitment to legislation to prevent genetic discrimination.

    "Ministers have been shockingly complacent about the ‘Brave New World’ of employee selection based on genetic make-up," said Dr Wallace. "Without safeguards, genetic research in the workplace could harm, not help, health and safety."

    In 2000, an Institute of Directors report, 'Testing Times: Directors’ Views on Health Testing at Work', found that 50% of employers responding to a questionnaire thought it would be appropriate to conduct genetic testing "to see if employees are at risk of developing an occupation-related disease due to exposure in the workplace" and 34% thought it would be appropriate "to see if they will develop heart disease which might affect sickness or early retirement".

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