Job testing may create a genetic underclass

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The Independent Online

Hundreds oF Americans blame their unemployment on their own DNA. Now experts are warning it is only a matter of time before genetic testing by employers arrives in the UK.

Hundreds oF Americans blame their unemployment on their own DNA. Now experts are warning it is only a matter of time before genetic testing by employers arrives in the UK.

In a recent report, the Institute of Directors (IoD) raised the question of whether genetic screening should be addressed in UK boardrooms. There are fears that use of the techniques could create a "genetic underclass" of supposedly unemployable gene-carriers.

Geraint Day, the IoD's chief researcher, said: "There is no doubt that this is going to be a huge issue over here. Testing by employers has already started in the US: that certainly means it'll crop up here very soon. If not properly handled, it could produce real trouble."

In the report, Mr Day asked 353 directors if it would be appropriate for employers to test employees for genetic disposition to heart disease. More than a third said it would if employees agreed: 8 per cent believed the test should be compulsory.

Although still in its infancy, the genetics debate creates huge waves in whatever area it touches. From modified crops to designer babies via insurance policies, the potential impact of scientific advances in this area is vigorously discussed. But rarely is a conclusion reached.

In the US the equal employment opportunities commissioner, Paul Miller, has already hit the panic button. He called for regulations to stop employers using "genetic discrimination" after a provocative survey in Massachusetts found over 580 people who'd been turned down for jobs because of "flaws" discovered in their genes.

The findings are backed by another US survey in 1996, in which 13 per cent of respondents said that they or a member of their family had lost a job as a direct consequence of a genetic condition. Examples included employers turning down people with a risk of heart disease, or because of potential mental problems.

Now the US has forbidden any Federal agency from using genetic information as a basis for hiring, promoting or dismissing employees. President Clinton is keen to extend that regulation, but the ban does not yet affect the private sector.

As yet there is no UK legislation specifically referring to genetic testing and employment.

The IoD says: "At least one legal expert has suggested an employer could lawfully require someone seeking employment to take a genetic test and it would not be illegal to use the information to decide whether or not to employ them."

When, as many predict, the issue of genetic testing of employees reaches these shores, the debate will be characterised by two main problems. The first is that, while the potential of genetic information is vast, the current pool of knowledge is relatively small. The Government announced two weeks ago that tests for the nearly always fatal Huntington's Chorea might be used by life assurers. The test joins a small list of "single gene" anomalies that can be easily detected.

But Mr Day says a huge problem arises when these tests start dabbling with a combination of genes, or a test that only produces a percentage likelihood of illness. "If these tests only come up with a likelihood of 40 per cent, that could be viewed as unfair discrimination," he said

The other issue is whether the genetics question comes under the sprawling umbrella of the Human Rights Act. Article 8 protects the right to private and family life. A leading employment lawyer, says we still do not know whether the Act can be used against genetic tests.

Regulation may prevent the creation of a "genetic underclass". But one US senator warned: "We simply cannot afford to take one step forward in science, while taking two steps backwards in civil rights."