HIV/AIDS and the workplace

Better minds better living with Dr. Yansie Rolston Monday, August 14 2017

THE revised National Workplace Policy on HIV/AIDS was launched last week by the Minister of Labour and Small Enterprise Development, and it was very timely, especially because of the unfortunate incidents where individuals publicly provided proof of their HIV status on social media.

HIV/AIDS is still a major health challenge and the CIA World Factsheet 2016 estimates that there are approximately 11,000 people in Trinidad and Tobago living with the virus.

There is also data indicating that people who are HIV positive are three times more likely to be unemployed, and that 64 per cent of new cases of HIV infection are in the age group 15-49 which represents the prime working age.

Very recently at a meeting about World Aids Day 2017 activities, a senior manager declared that he did not see the point of having a HIV Workplace Policy or Statement in his organisation, because according to him, there is no risk of exposure in his industry.

Clearly, he missed the fact that the policy was not just a document outlining preventative measures against potential occupational transmission.

Thankfully Gemma (who is HIV positive) was on hand to share her own workplace experience.

When she was diagnosed, she was mindful that it had the potential to affect all spheres of her life but her main concern was the effect it would have on her employment, because she was the sole breadwinner for her family.

She decided to keep the diagnosis to herself. However, after two years her company initiated unnecessary mandatory screening, even though the screening only provides a snapshot of the person’s status at the time of testing. Gemma was then forced into self-disclosure.

Even though screening should not be used as a mechanism for making biased decisions, Gemma was subject to passive aggressive behaviours and discrimination such as, snide remarks, not being invited to social events, being given menial tasks, being by-passed for training and development opportunities, and eventually she was demoted.

It is more than 30 years since the first AIDS diagnosis in Trinidad and Tobago, and there has been a lot of community outreach and awareness raising.

But there are still swathes of society including some workplaces where misconceptions about HIV/AIDS continues to be perpetrated fuelling stigma and discrimination.

The relaunch of the National Workplace Policy and the reiterating of the core remit of the HIV Workplace Advocacy Unit are therefore a very positive steps in the right direction, as they address the importance of prevention, care and the protection of rights of those who are HIV positive.

However, it is not good enough to develop an organisational policy or statement that is put away in a filing cabinet never to be seen again or placed on a shelf gathering dust.

It is about educating staff and making a positive impact on workplace experiences.

Contrary to the views of the hotel manager, a HIV/ AIDS Workplace Policy and Statement is not only about risk reduction and prevention.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) some of the key points that they should cover are:
•Non-discrimination – so that the rights and dignity of all persons are respected
•Confidentiality – there is no obligation for disclosure and any data on a person’s status is kept secure and confidential
•Fair employment practices – screening should not be used as a justification for employment nor should a person’s status be the reason for termination of employment
•Care and support – management commitments to ensuring there are non-discriminatory practices in the workplace and to communicate with employees the policies and practices
•Prevention and strategies including up to date information on risk reduction and ensuring employees work in a safe environment Organisations set the standards by which they expect all employees to behave, so having a workplace policy will make good business sense.

The policy does not have to be a lengthy, it can even be part of another policy document or initiative e.g. Health and Safety at Work. But it is important that all employees have access to the organisation’s policy statement outlining its stance and commitment on HIV/ AIDS. Such a document will go some way in reducing malicious intent behaviours, prevent human rights violations, quell staff disharmony, stem the loss of skilled, experienced labour, and reduce some of the fears and anxiety of the employees, thereby creating a supportive working environment which boosts morale, increases productivity and positively impacts on profitability.

Dr Yansie Rolston FRSA is a UK based disability and mental health specialist advisor.

She is a social strategist and trainer who works internationally at various levels of government, business and civil society. Contact her at 

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