HIV at work

Around 33 million people worldwide live with HIV.

The disease ravages individuals, families and communities, with the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world hardest hit: two-thirds of those who live with the virus are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

HIV also wrecks businesses. In South Africa for example, the vast majority of people who live with the virus are within the economically productive age-group, between 15 and 50 years old. One of the most difficult things companies have to deal with is the sheer numbers of staff - be they workers, supervisors, trade union members or managers - who are absent from work for months at a time - many never to return.

"I discovered that only one of the trainees was still alive — and he was close to death."

An ethical trade manager recently summed up the scale of the tragedy. He recalled visiting a tea estate in a southern African country five years previously, where he met five university graduates who had recently been taken on as management trainees: "I discovered that only one of the trainees was still alive — and he too was close to death from AIDS."

Working with HIV

But there is hope. Many companies that either source from, or operate in countries with a high HIV and AIDS prevalence, have developed responsible and innovative programmes to tackle disease in the workplace. Their experiences offer valuable lessons for other companies, not just in fighting HIV, but also in tackling other highly sensitive workplaces issues, like discrimination, bullying, or sexual harassment.

For example, avocado-producer Westfalia Ltd has developed a peer counsellor programme, where workers educate their workmates about how to prevent transmission, and encourage them to get tested at the farm's on-site clinic.

Tips for business

Some of the experiences of ETI member companies, trade unions and NGOs in tackling HIV and AIDS at work were aired at a recent roundtable. Their advice for businesses included:

Get top management buy-in from the outset. This will require intensive training to sensitise managers to the issues involved, then regular follow-up training.

Have a clear and transparent policy, and communicate it to staff through induction training, awareness-raising days and in your company staff handbook.

Provide anti-retrovirals. The costs of doing so are always worth it. According to one expert: "For every $1 you invest in HIV support and prevention, you get back $2 or $3."

Bring it out into the open. Talk about it openly, make it part of your business strategy to deal with it. Brushing it under the carpet can be - literally - fatal.

Debunk the myths. Despite the progress that has been made over the past 20 years in debunking urban myths, many people are still confused about how it is transmitted.

Work on removing the stigma. Get rid of any blame and finger-pointing, This includes having strict, transparent sanctions for those who gossip, and getting people to understand that even if they are not infected, everyone is affected by the virus.

Treat everyone as if they are infected. From a health and safety point of view, have procedures in place that assume everyone is infected.

Ensure confidentiality. People with the virus are often very frightened of losing their jobs if their status becomes known. Train managers and workers alike not to pry.

Don't terminate people's jobs unilaterally. If someone becomes too ill to work, manage the termination of their employment sensitively, making sure it is a two-way process. If they are able to do some light work, help them find alternative employment.

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