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New HIV/AIDS initiative: growing solidarity in the world of work

With an estimated 25 million or more workers infected with HIV, finding ways to help them and their employers deal with the consequences of the epidemic is a top priority. Top managers, employers' and workers' representatives and other stakeholders met recently at the ILO under the auspices of the UN Global Compact, to discuss action at the workplace to tackle the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS.

Article | 08 July 2003

GENEVA (ILO Online) – Times have changed since the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Where once workers faced an uncertain future when their illness was discovered, these days many multinationals and smaller employers are adopting innovative ways of protecting their employees from the social as well as economic consequences of their illness.

This was the theme of a recent two-day meeting of senior managers, executives and representatives of workers' and employers' organizations here to discuss policies for dealing with AIDS in the workplace. The meeting was the first of a series of multi-stakeholder policy dialogues on HIV/AIDS to be held by the UN Global Compact and the ILO Programme on HIV/AIDS and the world of work (ILO/AIDS), in collaboration with the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) .

Among the major developments was a joint statement issued by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the International Organization of Employers (IOE) announcing they would join forces in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In the statement entitled "Fighting HIV/AIDS Together: A Programme For Future Engagement", the organizations call on their affiliates and members, wherever located, to give the issue the highest priority.

"We believe that enterprises and trade unions, working together, can make a crucial and credible contribution to the fight against HIV/AIDS in the workplace, but also in the larger community", the statement says. "A first practical application of this partnership was an ICFTU African region workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, which brought together employers as well as trade union representatives from all over Africa."

This type of collaboration between workers and employers, as well as governments, international agencies and local communities, is emblematic of the evolution in attitudes towards HIV/AIDS and the workplace over the past several years. It provides growing evidence that the success of enterprises as well as economic growth and sustainable development in many parts of the world will increasingly depend on a response to HIV/AIDS that involves national policies, corporate planning and operations and community projects.

The Coca-Cola Foundation, for example, announced on 30 March that all 40 of its independent bottling companies in 54 African countries have now embraced a comprehensive HIV/AIDS programme that gives employees and their families access to anti-retroviral treatment, as well as such vital needs as voluntary testing, counseling, and means of prevention. The bottlers have also been asked to adopt and implement a charter on HIV/AIDS, based on the ILO Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the world of work.

An increasing number of multinational corporations operating in the region, including DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co, Shell and Standard Chartered Bank, have launched their own HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programmes for employees.

Workers and employers: together against HIV/AIDS

In 2000, African trade unions and the ICFTU adopted the 17-point "Gaborone Declaration" by which they pledged to bring the fight against the HIV epidemic into the workplace. The union programme includes anti-discrimination clauses in collective bargaining, prevention through education and training at the workplace, and campaigns to lower the price of treatment. With support from the ILO's Bureau for Workers' Activities, pilot programmes have been launched in three regions. HIV/AIDS should be considered not only a health issue, but also "a human rights issue, a social issue, an economic issue and a general development issue", says the Gaborone Declaration.

With support of the ILO'S Bureau for Employers' Activities, the ILO Programme on HIV/AIDS and in close coordination with the IOE and the Pan-African Employers' Confederation (PEC), the African employers' organizations initiated and adopted in 2000 for the French-speaking countries and in 2001 for the English-speaking countries an action plan for fighting HIV/AIDS in the workplace. These action plans aim at moving from the employer's awareness programme to concrete actions at the enterprise level.

The workplace: "a vital entry point for tackling HIV/AIDS"

Participants in the recent policy meeting said companies and trade unions operating at the forefront of the struggle with HIV/AIDS understand that the winning strategy is to work in partnership to find and replicate efficient and cost-effective interventions that limit the spread of infection and mitigate its impact. Companies understand too the need to work with the broader community, including families, sub-contractors, suppliers' networks and others, if they are to meet the challenges of HIV/AIDS. At the same time, participants realized the need to support, rather than sideline, existing health infrastructure and help build capacity within the community.

The extension of care and support into the community is costly, and the meeting acknowledged that this is not the immediate responsibility of companies who provide these services for their employees. But in order to avoid the creation of two-tier communities, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which currently supports over 100 programmes worldwide, is promoting a co-investment approach to provide funds for care and support to extended local communities in areas where companies have such programmes for their employees.

Cooperation between stakeholders also makes sound business sense. A survey by the Kenyan Federation of Employers revealed that HIV/AIDS is costing even small companies the equivalent of US$ 50 per employee annually. For multinationals, this can run into thousand of dollars per head. While those companies who presented their companies' efforts to fight HIV/AIDS in their workplaces could not quantify, in exact terms, the financial benefits of implementing initiatives over not dealing with the epidemic, it was clear that workplace programmes contributed to substantial cost-savings in terms of training new staff, absenteeism, productivity etc., as well as positive effects on moral.

The policy meeting proposed greater involvement of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the global response to HIV/AIDS. Managers should be provided with guidelines such as the ILO Code of Practice, and receive other practical support from larger companies. Participants expressed the view that the ILO Code of Practice and its accompanying training manual are core instruments in helping to prevent the spread of the epidemic, mitigate its impact on workers and their families, and promote social protection to help cope with the disease. All agreed that the epidemic could only be beaten by an inclusive and participatory approach on the part of governments and employers' and workers' organizations, sharing knowledge and lessons learned, and coordinating efforts.