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Jamaica HIV/AIDS workplace education: Changing attitudes, saving lives, and protecting jobs

AIDS remains one of the leading causes of death among Caribbeans aged 25 to 44 years, making the region the second most affected in the world after sub-Saharan Africa. The ILO’s ‘SHARE’ programme works with governments, employers and workers to provide prevention and care, helping save the lives of workers and keep them in decent jobs. ILO Online reports from Jamaica on the occasion of World AIDS Day 2007.

Article | 29 November 2007

KINGSTON, Jamaica (ILO Online) – For many of the 230,000 people in the Caribbean living with HIV, a day at work will be hard to endure – they may face discrimination and stigma from employers and fellow workers while lacking information or support about their illness.

But for others in the world of work, things are beginning to change. Since the ILO started workplace education programmes in the region, the world of work is increasingly becoming a place where employers and workers supported by government are joining forces to address the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS.

The new approach reaches beyond the formal workers into the hard to access informal economy. For example, informal sector hairdressers and beauticians participated in one of the ILO’s national sensitization workshops recently along with big corporate businesses. In most of these training workshops, people living with HIV/AIDS act as facilitators throughout the event but do not reveal their status until the last day.

“All the participants mix together and take meals together, which is a big thing here as there are many taboos about food preparation and HIV”, explains national project coordinator Nasolo Thompson. “The disclosure of the group leader’s status at the end is a shock to them and changes their perception of HIV dramatically”.

The sector is small but Jamaica’s National Association of Hairdressers and Cosmetologists (NAHC) is very active and keen to do what it can to support its members in the fight against HIV. With training and support from the ILO’s Strategic HIV/AIDS Responses by Enterprises (SHARE) Programme, the NAHC has sensitized 90 per cent of its 500 members and assisted hundreds of salon owners nationwide to share information and support behaviour change with clients and staff in response to the epidemic.

Carolyn Flowers-Smith, a salon owner in the Jamaican capital Kingston was trained as a peer educator in 2006 along with four other members of the NAHC’s HIV/AIDS Committee. Since then, she has initiated a peer education programme in her salon where she sees approximately 50 clients weekly and actively sensitizes most of them. She thus helps them to assess their personal risk, sharing basic facts on HIV/AIDS, providing printed materials and putting up posters throughout her salon.

“The training impacted enormously on me. I am now more knowledgeable about the issues around HIV/AIDS and this has helped me to share more accurate information with family, friends, clients and workers. Meeting and talking with a person who is HIV positive really brought it home to me”, says cosmetologist Vanessa Hayles, another member of the NAHC.

According to Nasolo Thompson, the programme has been able to make inroads through the 15 local companies which the programme has been working with over the last three and a half years. “We have evidence that things are moving in the right direction: we can see a certain degree of behavioural change, including a reduction in the number of sexual partners and an increase in the use of condoms”, she says.

Benefiting more than 20, 000 workers directly, the ILO project has so far trained 80 government officials and 112 key members of employers’ and workers’ organizations in agriculture, manufacturing, the financial and utilities sectors, and the informal economy so far.

“The NAHC is an excellent example of the way small to medium size and informal sector enterprises can help reduce the impact and spread of HIV/AIDS in the world of work”, says Sophia Kisting, Director of the ILO Programme on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work.

“With the involvement of government, employers’ and workers’ organizations, the SHARE Programme is also a good example of public-private partnership at the workplace level, involving thousands of people, from government ministers to truck drivers, trade unionists to garment workers, employers’ organizations to senior management”, she adds.

Thanks to support from a number of international donor partners, ILO/AIDS has projects in nearly 40 countries, with HIV activities in many more, all aiming to ensure that the workplace plays its full part in the achievement of universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.