Discrimination in the workplace against people living with HIV/AIDS is very much alive and threatens depletion of the country’s skills force, writes Dr Marlini (Nair) Moodley, a Marketing/ Applied Law academic at MANCOSA.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic is still having a profound impact on businesses in South Africa. Discrimination against individuals with HIV infections in the workplace still prevails. Employees living with HIV/AIDS are unable to continue working under normal conditions in their current employment for as long as they are medically fit to do so. Constructive dismissal occurs as a result of employees revealing their status.

Work actually becomes intolerable because of the discrimination that they have to endure. Although many of these individuals still have many able years ahead of them, they unfortunately terminate their services prematurely. The steady depletion of our skills force is a reality.

In the early 2000s, South Africa had the highest number of people in any one country living with HIV/AIDS. Currently it is difficult to track how many people are HIV-positive because they have a basic human right not to disclose their status to their employers or to any other individual.

The disease affects the workplace in a number of ways. Employees who are HIV-positive and on antiretroviral medication find it difficult to concentrate on their work tasks as the effects of the medication can be harsh on some individuals. This often results in a loss of experienced workers who are difficult to replace.

Resources, productivity issues

The HIV/AIDS pandemic is having a cascading effect on all aspects of management from basic human resources to productivity issues. While the effects of discrimination continue to exacerbate the impact of the pandemic on the lives of individuals, it has also become increasingly recognised that human rights is critical to protecting the rights and dignity of HIV-positive people, and to decrease the vulnerability of individuals and communities.

Large numbers of employees can be reached through effective on-going prevention and treatment programmes and business is ideally placed to do so.

Companies need to take cognisance of the fact that direct and indirect costs of inaction far outweigh the costs of treatment. The Peer Education Strategy is critical because this would reduce discrimination among employees. A supportive and caring culture needs to prevail. Religious leaders and support groups can be roped in to counsel HIV-positive employees into staying on the ARVs.

This transformational culture would certainly alter the mindsets of HIV-positive people as discrimination would be reduced or eradicated and they would not feel compelled to terminate their services. The Durban Chamber of Commerce embarked on an initiative from 2008 to 2010 to counsel HIV-positive employees. But sadly, due to the lack of funding, this much- needed programme came to an end.

Voluntary testing, counselling

Voluntary Testing and Counselling services should be made available to employees and dependants through company clinics and external providers whose services are reimbursed by medical aid and government grants for those who cannot afford medical aid.

If corporates start to create a culture where everyone receives counselling, irrespective of their status, this would allow HIV-positive individuals to benefit from discreet treatment and counselling programmes within the company.

Workplace programmes should be designed together with staff members so that the programme can be successful. It is very important that there is buy-in from all levels within the organisation. External counsellors may be brought in to facilitate the process.

The National Development Plan (NDP) asserts that health care can be improved through decreasing mortality by combating infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS and the emerging tide of non-communicable diseases.

Employers’ responsibilities

The government objective, ‘Health care for all by 2030’ outlined in the NDP is aimed at reducing child and infant mortality; maternal mortality; and combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases by 2030. However, employers still need to be proactive and aware of their responsibilities towards employees with HIV in order to ensure that they are treated fairly and with dignity.

Businesses should have the right procedures in place to manage complaints about harassment or mistreatment in the workplace. Staff should be provided with information on diversity and equality, and a culture of awareness and counselling on HIV should be created within businesses in order to prevent discrimination and stigma.

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