March 25, 2010 / 6:35 AM / 9 years ago

Lock-in is no get-out from retirement

PARIS (Reuters) - After years trying to avoid being forced into early retirement, 63-year-old Carole Avayou felt she had no choice but to lock herself into her office to get management’s attention.

A technician who had worked for Air France-KLM since 1978, Avayou had only just turned 60, France’s retirement age, when she received her first notice.

Days after her milestone birthday, the company asked her for documentation showing she had accumulated the required number of years paying social security to qualify for a full pension, which would qualify her for retirement.

Avayou refused, and lost her job anyway.

“I wanted to call them out on their responsibilities and cowardice. So I locked myself in my office,” she told Reuters.

“(I wanted them) to discuss things with me, hear my arguments. I put a piece of furniture behind the door and jammed the handle,” she said by phone.

Avayou is now in limbo, no longer working but also not sure whether she can receive a full pension.

She said the company had been trying to force a spate of workers into early retirement before the start of this year, when a new rule allowing people to work until the age of 70 kicks in. Air France-KLM declined to comment.

The retirement age in the euro zone’s second-largest economy is 60 for both men and women, much lower than in many of its neighbors. In Germany and Denmark, the retirement age is 67, while Britain is planning to increase it to 68.

France’s center-right government pushed through pension reforms in 2003 and again in 2007 and President Nicolas Sarkozy had hoped to put off a further, potentially divisive overhaul until after the next presidential election in 2012.

However, the 2009 recession has ravaged state accounts, forcing France to get tougher with its deficit, which is forecast to hit 8.2 percent of gross domestic product this year.

And while demographic change in France will be slightly less severe than in other countries, the government is trying to encourage people to work for longer.

A draft bill is supposed to be ready by September, after negotiations with unions and employers. But rather than go on paying the typically higher salaries of older workers, several companies have chosen to push their employees into retirement.

“Allegedly, you can work until the age of 70. You could even raise the retirement age to 80. But as soon as you understand that the bosses can do whatever they like, it doesn’t mean a thing,” Avayou said.

“It’s purely a question of age,” said Avayou, who now receives half her former income and paid 5,000 euros ($6,700) in lawyers’ fees.

French unions and pensioners have taken to the streets to protest against a possible rise in the retirement age and to demand higher payouts.

The government has ruled out raising taxes. But despite its efforts to get people to stay in their jobs for longer, older workers who do want to continue working often come up against considerable obstacles.

Avayou has turned to the courts in the meantime and is waiting for the next hearing.

Reporting by Sophie Taylor; Editing by Sara Ledwith

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