The ILO cognoscenti among you probably already know that in June, the ILO adopted an unprecedented new International Labour Standard on HIV/AIDS. What does this mean for ethical trade?
To find out, earlier this week I had a chat with Stirling Smith, ETI trainer and International Programmes Manager at the Co-operative College. Having worked as a chief technical advisor at the ILO for many years and developed countless ILO manuals on HIV/AIDS, Stirling is an expert - not only on ILO instruments and what they mean, but also on how companies can tackle HIV/AIDS in the workplace. Better still, as a trainer, he's happy to explain the myriad complexities of the ILO world in words of one syllable. Here's how our conversation went:
What is the scale of the problem the ILO is seeking to tackle?
Well, 33 million people around the world live with the disease, 90% of whom go to work. In Sub-Saharan Africa over the past 20 years it has been an absolute tragedy. And it wrecks businesses too, as most people who have HIV/AIDS are of working age. There are particular hotspots along the main long-distance transport routes in Africa - especially at border crossings, where drivers can be held up for days at a time.
Are companies doing enough to tackle HIV/AIDS in their supply chains?
No, I don't think they are. Ironically, in the developed world, I think people have fallen into a bit of a false sense of security. Anti-retroviral drugs are readily available here, and so the perception is no longer that of a fatal disease as it was in the 1980s, but of something that people can live with fairly happily. But it's another story in many developing countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the costs of ARVs are prohibitive and the health infrastructure to administer them is inadequate. I would imagine that many companies simply aren't aware of this.
Also, as the ETI Base Code and other labour standards don't specifically mention HIV/AIDS, it is unlikely to come up as an issue unless suppliers are smart and are already tackling it responsibly.
So what exactly is this new ILO standard?
To be precise, it is a Recommendation, rather than a Convention. These are the two types of labour standards the ILO can adopt. Recommendations aren't quite as rigorous as Conventions. Conventions must be ratified by governments, after which they effectively become national law, and so there are hard legal obligations for complying with them and reporting back to the ILO's Committee of Experts on their implementation.
With Recommendations, however, governments are still obliged to report on their implementation but the procedures are not quite as rigorous.
It is disappointing that the softer form of standard was chosen in the end.
So how will it help?
We now have a new international human rights instrument on HIV/AIDS in the workplace. This could well sit alongside the other ILO Conventions that underpin the ETI Base Code, such as Convention 111 which refers to discrimination in many forms, but not HIV/AIDS. ETI and other labour standards organisations should be reviewing their codes in light of the new standard. Once this happens, this will give greater prominence to it as an issue that companies must have a response to, which can only be a good thing for the people who live with HIV and AIDS.
What can sourcing companies do in the meantime?
For a start, there are very smart and switched-on suppliers out there which they can learn from. For example, ETI had a roundtable recently which showcased some of the innovative work that is being done by Westfalia in South Africa. They are doing some really outstanding work, which provides a great model for other companies to follow.
Companies should also do proper risk assessments on the issue. If they are sourcing from countries where there is known to be a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, they should make sure their auditing staff are trained to look for any signs of discrimination and harassment of people who have, or are suspected of having HIV/AIDS. They need to be proactive and make sure that auditors' checklists require them to look at the issue.
How important is HIV/AIDS as an ethical trade issue?
I see it as a prism through which companies can understand and start to tackle other workers' rights issues. You can tell a lot about how workers are treated in general by looking at how a supplier is handling HIV/AIDS. If they have their eyes shut to it, you can usually make a fairly safe assumption that they are not going to be very good at preventing discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying and so on.
In reverse, research into violence and harassment towards women has found that empowering women is one of the keys to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. So if you reduce sexual harassment of women, you can reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS, and vice versa.
And if you get your suppliers to start to develop proactive HIV/AIDS programmes, as these should involve building respect, trust, open communication and confidentiality among the workforce, this obviously will make a workplace a happier place to be in general.