In the media

Fight HIV-Aids in the workplace

05 December 2017

KEITH Sososo, a worker at a food and beverage company, had a bright future until one fateful day in June when he told his boss a piece of devastating news he learned just the day before.

He had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can cause Aids. Sososo, not his real name, a hard worker who had received accolades for his dedication, also told his colleagues of the test results because he wanted to head off rumours.

HIV and Aids are a major threat to the world of work and have had a maximum impact on the most productive segment of the labour force.

What happened afterwards confirmed his fears, leading to stigmatisation, discrimination and repeated instances of harassment. There are many Sososos. As we commemorate World Aids Day under the theme Increasing Impact through Transparency, Accountability, and Partnerships, and as the HIV-Aids epidemic enters its fourth decade, few, if any workplaces, remain untouched.

Lest we forget, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the majority of infected people are between 25 and 49 years old. Half the nation’s workforce falls into this age group.

HIV-Aids is the third leading cause of death for men and the fourth leading cause for women in this group.

Businesses around the globe are steadily counting up the cost of HIV-Aids and the statistics are staggering. It threatens businesses around the globe with rising medical costs, increased demand for training and recruitment due to high turnover in staffing, loss of productivity due to absenteeism and low staff morale.

Stigma and discrimination are among the primary obstacles to effective HIV-Aids prevention and care in the workplace and across communities where persons living with HIV-Aids are rejected, scorned by colleagues at work, members of the community and even relatives and friends.

Of course, smart business leaders are recognising the danger of ignoring its economic and social consequences. Maybe some of them have read the Harvard Business Review article “Aids is your Business”.

In this article, Sydney Rosen and her colleagues argue that because HIV, unlike most diseases, strikes those in their most productive years, if left unabated it quickly begins to add to the costs of labour and to slow the growth rate of potential new markets.

With an appropriate level of alarm and impeccable research to back their claim, they declare: “Aids is destroying the twin rationales of globalisation strategy cheap labour and fast growing markets” and should move every company doing global business to do something about it.”

According to the WHO, the diseases are the world’s leading infectious killers claiming to date more than 25 million lives. WHO says that an estimated two million people die every year from HIV-Aids and most of these deaths are in the productive age.

Of course HIV-Aids is covered by various legislations which encourage non-discrimination standards, job-application procedures, hiring, advancement and the discharging of employees.

Discrimination in compensation, job training, and any other terms, conditions and privileges of employment are also covered.

We must commend the government on the progress made nationally considering the magnitude of the challenge and resource constraints. Some of the successes include a reduction in the number of transmission of HIV particularly among the economically active age group (15-49), a decline in the mother to child transmissions, an increase in voluntary testing.

People get to know their status sooner and can therefore seek treatment sooner and this sees an increase in the number of people on treatment. However, it cannot be left to the government alone to continue the fight against HIV-Aids.

The corporate world and responsible citizens need to help stem the epidemic. HIV-Aids discrimination and stigmatisation in the workplace underscores how vulnerable the vast majority of infected workers are.

Some companies still wait until they discover an employee carries the virus before they confront the need for education or personnel policies and only then improvise a response in a crisis situation.

HIV-Aids in the workplace is clearly recognised as serious. Its threat to workers and employers alike has critical implications. It is detrimental for companies not to implement health programmes, because the illness seriously affects the future and present work force as well as the bottom line.

According to the World Bank, the HIV-Aids impact may reduce the growth of the national income by up to a third in some countries.

That is why the World Bank believes success would come through “tri-partism”, good governance, social dialogue, shared responsibility, partnerships and the involvement of persons living with HIV-Aids.

It should also involve workers at all levels, and particularly senior leadership to lead by example to get HIV-Aids so “normalised” that when a person says he or she has HIVAids, they will not be stigmatised.

So, how can employers tackle stigma and discrimination and be on the road to winning the fight against HIV-Aids in the workplace? How do companies set up an HIV-Aids awareness programme to help prevent the spread of misinformation?

Develop an HIV-Aids policy.
Define your goals and objectives.
Teach your supervisors and managers about HIV-Aids, and ensure workplace policies are clear.
Educate yourself and your employees, their families, and the community about HIV-Aids by providing accurate, up-to-date information.
Develop, implement and do compliance monitoring of HIV-Aids’ policies including anti-discrimination and confidentiality training and education on HIV-Aids for managers, union leaders and workers.
Access to confidential HIV-Aids testing with high-quality pre-and post-test counselling in the workplace and activities to promote prevention and reduce stigma and discrimination of people living with HIV-Aids too should be a must-do.

From the above, designed by various organisations including WHO and the UN, education of all company staff, including senior management, as well as policy development and implementation on how to manage HIV-Aids in the workplace, are major steps needed to help stem the spread of the pandemic and reduce stigma

Henry Mkwananzi is a senior manager at Aid for Aids Management, a subsidiary of AfroCentric, owners of Medscheme and other health companies


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