98th International Labour Conference

HIV/AIDS: Discussions on a new labour standard begin at ILO conference

This week, governments, workers and employers representing the ILO's 183 member States begin a two-year process during which they will discuss a ground-breaking draft labour standard on HIV/AIDS in the world of work. ILO Online asked ILO/AIDS Director Dr. Sophia Kisting to explain the significance of this development, and how a new labour standard would help address the global challenge posed to the world of work by the pandemic.

Article | 03 June 2009

ILO Online: What is the significance of the discussions on a new international standard on HIV/AIDS and the world of work at the ILC in June 2009?

Sophia Kisting: The ILO is in the process of formulating an international human rights instrument on HIV/AIDS and the world of work. If adopted in 2010, this standard will be the first international human rights instrument to focus explicitly on HIV/AIDS. To date, HIV/AIDS has been deemed to be covered implicitly by the ILO’s international labour standards such as Convention No. 111 on Discrimination (Employment and Occupation). The UN Commission (now Council) on Human Rights has repeatedly affirmed in its resolutions on HIV/AIDS that the term 'other status' in instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is interpreted to include HIV status.

ILO Online: How would such a recommendation impact on the world of work and rights issues in the workplace?

Sophia Kisting: The existence of an instrument focusing solely on HIV and the world of work will give new impetus to anti-discrimination policies at national and workplace levels. It will strengthen the contribution of the world of work to countries’ achievement of universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support and encourage information-gathering and reporting. It will also provide a tool that can be used by our fellow cosponsors in UNAIDS (the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS) in supporting countries to develop a legal-policy environment and strategic plans that are multisectoral, inclusive and effective. It’s very encouraging that many of our constituents believe in the usefulness of establishing an ILO standard in this area and are already looking ahead to its implementation.

ILO Online: What are the links between HIV/AIDS and the economic crisis, the main focus of this ILC?

Sophia Kisting: The global economic crisis may change financial arrangements for countries largely dependant on external support for HIV programmes. In this way, the crisis puts at critical risk all efforts invested in prevention, treatment and care over recent years. Increased precariousness and loss of livelihoods may lead to increased risk of exposure to HIV infection and interrupted treatment, with possibly fatal consequences. A recent survey by the World Bank shows that treatment for up to 1.7 million people in Africa, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Asia may be interrupted or ended due to the global financial downturn.

ILO Online: Is there a link between the discussions on the recommendation and other items at the Conference, such as the discussions on the global jobs crisis and gender equality?

Sophia Kisting: We will do our best to examine and respond to the linkages between them. The axis between income inequality, gender inequality, and HIV/AIDS is one of the most fundamental drivers of the epidemic. Similarly, the impact of HIV will undermine recovery efforts unless it’s factored into national responses where appropriate. The proposed new labour instrument takes a rights-based and gender-aware approach to HIV prevention and impact mitigation, and also acknowledges the inter-connections between the epidemic and social and economic inequality.

ILO Online: What role does employment play in relation to HIV/AIDS and what should be done to reinforce it?

Sophia Kisting: Poverty exacerbates the impact of HIV, so any form of employment and income-generating activity would help mitigate this root cause of the spread of HIV in many countries. At the same time, high levels of youth unemployment and poverty can contribute to HIV vulnerability for young people. When income is needed, young people may undertake work that is marginal, dangerous or illegal. The fact that about 45% of all new HIV infections are among youth has serious implications for productivity today and the workforce of tomorrow. It is thus imperative that youth employment be fully supported and positioned as a key strategy in the prevention of HIV, and the draft conclusions for the Recommendation discussion include a section on youth. At the same time, with increased access to ARV treatment, more and more people living with HIV are fit to continue working indefinitely. Maintaining their jobs and their livelihoods is crucial to enable them to remain productive rather than being recipients of welfare. It is this employment perspective, rights-based approach and the way workplace policies and programmes reinforce national AIDS strategies that the ILO brings to the UNAIDS partnership and UN efforts generally.

ILO Online: What are the provisions for migrant workers under the proposed Recommendation and why?

Sophia Kisting: According to UN estimates, 95-100 million out of the approximately 200 million people living outside their country of birth in 2005 (2.9 per cent of the world’s population) were international labour migrants. Being a migrant worker is not a risk factor in itself. However, certain factors associated with being on the move can increase the HIV risks and vulnerabilities of migrant workers. These may include separation from families and and homes, language barriers, poor living and working conditions, discrimination, and less access to HIV information and services than other population groups. In the context of the current economic crisis we have reports of increased human rights violations , and pressure on migrant workers to move from formal to informal employment or to return to their countries of origin. These trends are likely to exacerbate vulnerability to HIV.

The ILO has taken action on HIV and labour migration, mainly in Asia, and on mobility, mainly in Southern Africa. ILO projects focus on laws, policies and action in labour sending and receiving countries – including regional harmonization of relevant provisions – and pre-migration training for internal and international migrants through government authorities and recruitment agencies. Furthermore, in collaboration with UNAIDS and the IOM, the ILO has developed a policy brief on the HIV-related needs and rights of international labour migrants.

Our policy and programme advice and activities – across the board, including for migrants – are consistently gender-specific and take account of the different status of, pressures on and needs of men and of women.