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Managing HIV and AIDS at work: Opportunities for sustainable change

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by Kathleen Fergusson-Stewart

 

Globally, nine out of every ten persons living with HIV and AIDS are adults in their productive prime, the mainstay of families and communities. It is estimated that over 16,000 persons are living with HIV in Trinidad and Tobago and 73 per cent of new infections occur in the 15 to 49 age range. HIV and AIDS therefore pose a real threat to the world of work because it affects those who are of prime working age. (National Strategic Plan 2004 - 2008).

How does HIV affect the workplace?
HIV and AIDS is a workplace issue, not only because it affects labour and productivity, but also because the workplace has a vital role to play in determining our quality of life. HIV and AIDS threaten the livelihoods of many workers and of those who depend on them - families, communities and enterprises and as a result national economies may be compromised.

Workers with HIV and AIDS often face discrimination in the workplace that may culminate in the loss of their jobs and/or access to training and promotional opportunities. The consequences of these losses reach critical proportions when they affect essential services and structures, such as that national security and health systems that are at the forefront of the response.

The Ministry of Labour and Small and Micro Enterprise Development charges itself with the responsibility of being a pioneer in addressing the high infection rates of HIV and AIDS that are currently facing our country. As a national leader, the Ministry is responsible for the development, implementation and monitoring of a national HIV and AIDS workplace policy, which will set out the framework for action by employers, trade unions and government.

Although the Ministry of Labour and Small and Micro Enterprise Development recognises its critical role in leading efforts to minimise the impact of HIV and AIDS on the world of work, many stakeholders are still not aware of the importance of dealing with HIV in the workplace.  In an attempt to address this, and prepare the Ministry to be a flagship for other Ministries on this issue, keen attention is being paid to building the capacity of its HIV and AIDS Committee Members in the technical aspects of HIV programming.

What's stopping us from addressing HIV in the workplace?
HIV related stigma and discrimination, absence of sufficient literature related to HIV as a workplace issue, insufficient personnel with the capacity to address HIV in the workplace, and inadequate programmes all continue to reduce the effectiveness of our national efforts to deal with this issue.

People are still superstitious about how HIV is transmitted. Some still do not accept that mosquitoes cannot infect humans with HIV, that sharing a toilet seat is safe and that workers with HIV should have access not just to employment, but to promotions too. In this regard, the absence of sufficient work related HIV materials is being addressed through the Ministry's It's Ok HIV-related anti-stigma and discrimination campaign, launched in December 2007. The Ministry commemorated World AIDS Day by hosting an HIV and the World of Work Public Information Fair on December 6, 2007. One of the fair's critical goals was to increase awareness of HIV and AIDS as a workplace issue among the general population. We also tried to demonstrate government's role and commitment to addressing HIV and AIDS in the workplace.

How can the Ministry help people living with and affected by HIV?

Persons living with HIV (PLWHIV) can register at the National Employment Service of the Ministry of Labour and Small and Micro Enterprise Development (NES) and find access to jobs that match their skills. If a person feels that they have been unfairly dismissed, they have the option of obtaining support from the Conciliation Unit which is also housed in the Ministry. This unit can help prevent and manage conflicts. They offer advice to unions and employers in conflict management and industrial relations. PLWHIVs requiring guidance on matters related to minimum wage, sick leave, vacation leave and hours of work can relay their concerns to the Labour Inspectorate Division of the Ministry.

In Conclusion
A country's development is dependant on a constant supply of persons qualified to innovate, create, execute and guide. People, therefore, are our most important resource. HIV and AIDS rob us of people: people with solutions to problems; people who are fathers; people who are leaders; people who are children. People who are People! When we stop seeing people and see only a disease that we must win the fight against, the result is HIV-related stigma and discrimination.

Stigma and discrimination related to HIV is often a fear-based defense mechanism expressing a false sense of safety. If I treat those who have HIV badly, then I somehow protect myself.  "But HIV and AIDS doesn't just hitch rides with truck drivers on lonely highways in Southern Africa, India, Brazil or Russia. It flies business class with men in dark suits, too. It walks in through the door of both sex workers and housewives. It hangs out in college canteens, plays on the swings in the park, shops at the grocery around the corner, smiles at you every day while you are at work." (ILO Geneva Juan Somivia)

Therefore, persons living with HIV are not just those with an HIV-positive result, but "all ah we!" Moreover dealing with the real challenges of access to good treatment and prevention service, lifestyle management and maintaining dignity is magnified in an atmosphere of rejection and suspicion.

The Ministry of Labour and Small and Micro enterprise Development calls on the people of Trinidad and Tobago to stop discrimination and remember it's OK to invite PLWHIV to the lime and to use the same utensils that they do. It's OK to talk to PLWHIV and not talk about them. It's OK, give that worker all the perks and promotions that he or she deserves. As one PLWHIV said, "If you take away our jobs, you will kills us faster than the virus. If we are sacked from jobs due to our HIV status, this ensures us a regular income and keeps us and our families going."

 quote of arms
 Ministry of Labour and Small and Micro Enterprise Development 

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