The impact of HIV and AIDS in the Workplace:
Like other countries globally, HIV and AIDS pose a threat to the overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Trinidad and Tobago. The statistics demonstrate that the epidemic is concentrated in the 15 – 49 age group, it can therefore be surmised that this age-group represents the majority of our working class. Our prevalence rate in the country now stands at 1.5% of our entire population at the end of 2009 with a looming figure that can be a lot higher due to under reporting and persons not taking advantage of free testing services. The business sector is a major stakeholder in addressing HIV, as a possible dwindled human resource pool can mean fewer people to drive production and provide services and a further lowering of overall profits resulting in a lower national GDP.
The National Workplace Policy on HIV and AIDS (2008) states, ‘In Trinidad and Tobago (1992 – 2002), the ILO placed an average annual GDP loss attributable to HIV and AIDS at US forty-five million dollars’. The policy also states that, ‘the total losses, as a proportion of the total labour force were projected to be 4.7% by 2015. The Health Economics Unit of the University of the West Indies has projected that in a few years Trinidad and Tobago will lose about 4% of its annual national income, that is, about TT2.4 billion dollars if the spread of HIV and AIDS continue at this rate.’ With this information in hand, there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that employers should pay particular attention to HIV and its potential impact on the workplace.
In spite of the increase in education and awareness activities surrounding the disease, a lot more needs to be done to ensure that our business practices mirror the messages portrayed. The practices employed by businesses though geared towards protecting their interests can often be seen as discriminatory i.e. the use of medicals for prospective employees, the position of no cover for HIV+ persons and the prevailing burden for beneficiaries or next of kin should someone die as a result of HIV. The National Workplace Policy on HIV and AIDS provides businesses with guidelines on developing their own policies and programmes. There are no added sanctions for non-implementation but there is the added intangible of being known as an employer that is insensitive to the needs of its employees if not enacted.
The National Workplace Policy on HIV and AIDS is supported by our National Constitution (1976), the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) No. 1 of 2004 and amended by the succeeding amendment in 2006 to the same Act. Further support is gained from the ILO Convention No. 111, Discrimination (Employment and Occupation), 1958 and the ILO Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the work of work.
However, a 2005 survey conducted by the National AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC) revealed that only 11% of the organizations surveyed had implemented an HIV/AIDS workplace policy. Similarly, the International Labour Organization (ILO) 2006 review of existing HIV and AIDS workplace policies found that the key principles of the ILO Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the world of work, otherwise referred to as the ILO Code of Practice, were insufficiently addressed.
What this shows is that a supportive work environment is definitely needed to provide persons with opportunities to get tested for HIV, and when persons are found to be HIV+ they need to be given the support to continue being productive employees. Studies have shown that for half of the people who contract HIV, it takes more than a decade to develop AIDS. With medical treatment, many of them can manage the infection as a chronic, long-term condition, similar to many other diseases such as cancer.
It is important to note here that medication is free in Trinidad and Tobago – something that may be a little known fact. An extended life expectancy for HIV+ persons ultimately means that there will be a larger number of persons available to work. It is important for employers to be aware of the fact that there will be larger number of persons in the workforce who are either infected or affected by HIV so choice will be a bit limited.
Having a policy in place to address HIV can reap many benefits. Employers with businesses that cater to a proactive education programme surrounding HIV can minimize the potential staff turnover or loss of productivity and human resource that can result. It is important to have information available within the work environment at all levels which should be strategically repeated to get the best results. The education programmes should do well if myths about the disease are dispelled especially as it relates to the types of contact that take place within the work environment, including sharing bathrooms, handshakes, eating at the same table and being exposed to coughs and sneezes. The same programmes should emphasize that HIV+ persons would be more susceptible to respiratory diseases that can be contagious and in that instance precautions can be advised. The actions that can help prevent the spread of HIV should be also advised. In the occupational settings where transmission of the virus is possible, like clinics and hospitals, the employer must provide appropriate education and post exposure services. All in all the promotion of an enabling environment should be promoted.
The workplace remains an avenue to address the impact of HIV since the disease affect persons in their most productive years. As a nation we need to do what we can to address stigma that fuels the discrimination of persons who are infected and affected by the HIV experience.