HIV/AIDS Education in the Workplace: Whose Responsibility is it?

Apart from Absenteeism and Occupational Safety and Health, Life Threatening Diseases (LTDs) inclusive of HIV & AIDS Awareness, continues to be a major topic of discussion in the workplace.

It is estimated that approximately 2% of the Trinidad and Tobago population (15-49 years old) as at 2009, is alive at yearend with HIV infection, whether or not they have developed symptoms of AIDS. There continues to be a need for awareness and education in this area to not only encourage prevention but to reduce the stigma associated with Life Threatening Diseases.

HIV is a global threat. That we know for sure. However what many have not been able to comprehend is the fact that HIV/AIDS is a serious multifaceted issue. The economic repercussions of HIV/AIDS are not readily apparent and so many businesses fail to grasp an understanding of its economic implications. It has been estimated that the global labour force stands to lose 74 million persons by 2015 without intervention of educations and awareness programmes. In Trinidad and Tobago, we are already losing the working population to migration, and the free movement policy of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) agreement will provide external markets, outside of T&T, for jobseekers. How many business leaders slow down from their busy schedules to analyse the possible impact on their organization? Moreover, creation of awareness is seen as another social or medical problem for the government of the day to solve.

The Impact on businesses

The HIV epidemic threatens, at the very core, the capacity of employers to deliver their goods and services. Illness, death and loss of skills and experience, reduce productivity and profitability of businesses and also increase labour cost. Workplaces in the most seriously affected countries report increases in absenteeism, labour turnover, and the cost of recruitment, training and staff welfare. As some local businesses struggle to adjust to reduced income and its attendant challenges, the real impact of HIV/AIDS will be felt as productivity decreases, labour cost increases and their international competitiveness is reduced.

Achieving or maintaining competitiveness is the goal of every business - we are on a never-ending mission to increase the level of productivity and at the same time reduce production costs.

We have all heard business leaders extolling that “Employees are our greatest assets”. Well HIV/AIDS is a taking a huge toll on the most valuable assets of businesses, human capital.  At every level of business, valuable and skilled workers are falling ill and dying. The death of workers today, and the failure to prevent infections among workers tomorrow, diminishes the stock of human capital.

Businesses are quite proactive in insuring their physical assets - the building, the plant and machinery, vehicles- and health insurance is usually offered to employees as part and parcel of an attractive compensation package.  But are businesses really serious about ensuring that their most valuable resource is available to contribute to the production of the company’s goods and services?

What can employers do?

In reviewing good practices of companies in the international business sphere, some companies have been proactive in the management of HIV/AIDS in the workplace. Standard Chartered, an international bank developed a programme in 2003 called Living with HIV which focuses on prevention through peer education, and teaches staff and their families what they can do to keep themselves healthy, live positively, and how to access practical and emotional support.  

A good starting point, however, for employers in the fight against HIV/AIDS is to develop and implement a workplace policy on HIV/AIDS that will prevent discrimination against employees and potential employees on the basis of real or perceived HIV status. This policy should be developed with your employee representative or trade union involvement where necessary. A manager should be designated with lead responsibility and a committee should be established with a time-bound action plan.
The ECA, as the leading employers’ organization in the country, has already made available to its membership, a policy on “Life Threatening Diseases” which includes treating with HIV/AIDS. In developing their policies, employers should also be guided by the Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work, produced by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Some businesses have responded positively to the often-overwhelming challenges posed by the HIV/AIDS pandemic by playing a facilitative, informative and educational role.  Employers can provide education and prevention information in the workplace by organizing workshops and programmes for staff. The most effective programmes involve staff from all levels, as well as their representatives from trade unions, in the planning and monitoring processes. The policies and programmes can be integrated into other workplace programmes, such as those relating to health and safety.

Employers can support access to Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) by offering employees free confidential counselling and testing services, either through company-sponsored facilities or by providing the necessary time off to access these services at local health centres. The provision of care and support can also be done through Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs).

Employers must also take all the necessary steps to ensure confidentiality of personal data. This is a basic prerequisite for personnel working in a human resource department/function. Lack of confidentiality is a serious problem in the workplace. People are reluctant to go for testing due to fear of unsanctioned disclosure of private information in the workplace. There should be stiff penalties for HR staff disclosing personal information without approval.

The strategies highlighted must have the support and demonstrated commitment of executive management to ensure the success.  The management of the organization must demonstrate a clear commitment to the HIV/AIDS strategy.  It is very important for workers to see this commitment in concrete form through non-discrimination and support for PLWHAs. A policy handbook in a manager’s drawer is not considered concrete commitment. Concrete commitment will go far in developing mutual trust between employers and employees as well as facilitating an atmosphere wherein people are willing to undergo voluntary HIV testing.

HIV/AIDS programmes can be cost effective. Against a landscape of decreasing productivity and increasing cost, businesses need to get involved now to protect its bottom line. It therefore makes for sound business sense to invest in a policy and programme that will provide support for those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.  Businesses, large and small, must also recognize their responsibility to their employees as well as their communities and do their part in the fight against AIDS.
Developing a policy need not be a time consuming exercise, since policy guidelines are available from the ECA and the ILO. Both documents are available on the respective websites.

Cognizant of the impact of HIV/AIDS on businesses, the ECA will continue to provide support and guidance to employers through its contribution to HIV/AIDS-related tripartite committees and Boards as well as the provision of workshops and seminars. The time for business leaders to act is now.  
Whether you wish to admit it or not, businesses are threatened by this pandemic. Sitting on the fence is no longer an option. Business leaders must now do their part and take up the baton for the HIV/AIDS cause in the workplace.
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By the Employers’ Consultative Association of Trinidad and Tobago
About the ECA
The Employers’ Consultative Association of Trinidad and Tobago (ECA) was formed  in 1960 primarily to assist and support Employers in Industrial Relations matters and to have a ‘Voice’ that would speak on their behalf on matters of similar interest.