PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago (ILO Online) – “It is a good time to ‘come out’ and not be discriminated against,” says 35-year old David Soomarie, who is HIV positive.
David shares his first name with his father: “When anyone asks my father about me”, he says proudly: “Yes, that’s my son.” According to David, this shows that society in Trinidad and Tobago is becoming better informed, that “HIV has no face; it could be anyone”.
For Madhuri Supersad, an HIV/AIDS specialist at the ILO’s Sub-regional Office for the Caribbean in Port of Spain, “much has been accomplished by the ILO in the Caribbean by developing workplace policies and programmes to keep people living with HIV in jobs and to avoid them being discriminated against.”
As an institutional framework against stigma and discrimination in the workplace, the ILO developed Workplace Education Projects in five Caribbean countries – Belize, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, funded by the United States Department of Labor. The programmes involve governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations and ensure that the three partners sustain programmes beyond the ILO’s involvement.
As a follow-up to the ILO programme, the Ministry of Labour and Small and Micro Enterprise Development in Trinidad and Tobago launched a National Workplace Policy on HIV and AIDS on 14 April 2008 as “a critical step towards the reduction of HIV-related stigma and discrimination which contributes to the creation of an enabling environment for prevention, care and support.”
To sustain and institutionalize the new workplace policy in Trinidad and Tobago, more than 100 officers of the Ministry of Labour were trained to deal with HIV/AIDS issues, while members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), representatives of employers’ and workers’ organizations, and nearly 200 workers received special training as peer educators.
Collective agreements increasingly contain HIV/AIDS clauses, more enterprises are providing insurance coverage for their workers living with HIV, and there is counseling on responsible sexual behaviours at the enterprise level. One company has even extended its internal education programme to young people leaving school and the general public.
“Notwithstanding the establishment of the policy and programmes, we know that deeper changes of behaviour take time, and make continuous prevention efforts necessary,” cautions Ms. Supersad.
In Guyana, the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security launched a National HIV/AIDS Workplace Policy on 30 March 2009 with the objective “to mitigate the impact of HIV/AIDS on the world of work. A total of 23 enterprises in Guyana have implemented HIV/AIDS workplace policies and programmes, while more and more of the larger enterprises are integrating HIV/AIDS issues into their occupational safety and health (OSH) programmes,” says Sean Wilson, the ILO HIV/AIDS National Project Coordinator in Guyana.
The Guyana Trade Union Congress succeeded with its demand to integrate HIV/AIDS issues into collective agreements with the country’s employers.
According to Mr. Wilson, the overall level of employment-related discrimination against persons living with or affected by HIV/AIDS has been reduced considerably. “An important contributing factor has been the involvement of persons living with HIV in the training.” says Mr. Wilson.
“We have made important strides which allow me and another person living with HIV to go weekly on a national television programme here in Trinidad and Tobago to inform people. I get a lot of encouraging feedback”, says David Soomarie.
“In my last job as a Communications Consultant, my boss and work colleagues knew my status and I felt very comfortable at the workplace” he adds. Mr. Soomarie has been living with HIV for 15 years now and while he has been severely ill at times, he has been consistently in good health since he received access to free anti-retroviral medication through a Government-sponsored programme.
But Mr. Soomarie does not want to convey the idea that people living with HIV/AIDS face a perfect world now. “Much has to be done and more enterprises should engage in education programmes at the workplace,” he says.
For Ansil Henry, who tested positive in 2003, life has been a roller coaster ride from that day of “complete frustration”, when a male nurse at a local hospital marked “HIV/AIDS” in red on his hospital card. Today, he is a counselor at an NGO support group, passing on his experiences with coping skills to others.
For Sophia Kisting, Director of the ILO Programme on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work, “it is important to maintain and extend progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS even in times of crisis. Our message is that access for all to prevention, treatment, care and support is a fundamental human right. The workplace has a vital role to play in the wider struggle to realize this right and control the epidemic”.
“Times of crisis should not lead to compromises, the right to work and retain employment for people living with HIV needs to be fully recognized,” she adds.