Agencies target workplaces in HIV/AIDS fight By Chamanlall Naipaul
Guyana Chronicle
April 18, 2007

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AN HIV/AIDS seminar yesterday stressed the need for greater collaboration and the involvement of all in the fight against the dreaded disease which according to United Nations statistics has infected more than 40 million people worldwide.

The workshop at the Banks DIH Thirst Park complex was a collaborative effort by the beverage giant, the Guyana Rice Development Board and the General Workers Union (GWU).

Addressing the seminar, Focal Point Officer of the Ministry of Agriculture, Mr. Rawle Khan, said the pandemic has implications beyond the health issue with wider socio-economic consequences.

“For a long time, HIV/AIDS was viewed as purely a health issue. Yet, HIV/AIDS has implications that reach far beyond health, including great impact on agricultural and food production systems”, he said.

“That the AIDS pandemic is just about everybody’s business should now be a foregone conclusion. After all its ravages and ubiquitous dislocations in communities worldwide, it is undeniable that we are all troubled by this killer, one that is no respecter of persons, striking at anyone, anywhere, be they rich or poor, young or old,” Khan said.

According to him, some 440,000 people in the Caribbean are living with HIV/AIDS and of this number it is estimated that 20,000 are Guyanese. It is projected, he said, that one million people in the region will die from the disease by 2009.

In addition, Khan said, in the same year it is predicted that there would be 243,000 new cases of HIV infection and 334,000 new cases of AIDS in the Caribbean.

He said the workplace has been chosen for implementation of the fight against the pandemic because it has become necessary to view the disease as more than just a health problem, more so since the one dimensional health focus has been unsuccessful.

“In addition, this unprecedented approach has been chosen because of the age range of the infected (15-49), the threat of labour shortages and a weakened labour force, social isolation, monetary shortages and impacts within the household (such as redistribution of tasks, and more attention paid to the sufferer at the expense of other necessary activities). People living with HIV/AIDS are likely to provide less labour, have less capital and more in need of risk management strategies,” Khan said.

He added that as a result, workers struggle to pay increased medical and other bills, simultaneously losing their earning capacity and experiencing a decrease in financial wealth and assets may need to be sold.

“All these aspects contribute to a decline in production, food quality and quantity,” Khan noted.

General Manager of GRDB, Mr. Jagnarine Singh, pointed out that AIDS is a workplace issue not only because it affects labour and productivity but the workplace has a vital role to play in the wider struggles to limit the spread and effects of the disease.

He observed that the effects of disease are felt by enterprises and national economies as well as workers and their families.

“The epidemic strikes hard at the most vulnerable groups in society, including the poorest of the poor, women and children, thereby exacerbating existing problems of inadequate social protection,” Singh said.

He added that according to a UN document, there are four main factors which make workers particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS -- the lack of opportunities for decent work, discrimination, lack of influence and representation and poor social protection.

These “decent work deficits” increase the likelihood of infection among young workers, and deepen the social impact of HIV/AIDS, he said.

“They will often be the last hired and the first fired, and may be subjected to unacceptable working conditions and very low pay. Many societies accord a subordinate status to young people and little respect for their rights; young workers themselves are often unaware of their rights, or lack procedures to redress grievances, for example, discrimination on the basis of HIV status. They are therefore at a disadvantage when it comes to identifying and confronting bullying or sexual harassment at the workplace,” Singh indicated.

He added that the world of work will have to adjust to the approximately 14 million orphans affected by AIDS, many of whom are deprived of schooling or adult mentoring but will reach working age in the next decade.

The GRDB General Manager exhorted that companies should have a good policy with respect to HIV/AIDS to help meet the needs of management, HIV infected employees and co-workers.

In this regard he urged that companies adhere to the law and its protection for infected persons, including acceptable performance standards, no discrimination and reasonable accommodation; invite employees to receive more information on HIV through human resources or host regular employee education; assure employees that their individual health status is confidential, as well as ensuring that the safety of all employees is of utmost importance; state where employees should go with questions about HIV transmission, and from whom supervisors should get directions on dealing with HIV issues in their respective departments.

GWU General President, Mr. Norris Witter, implored participants at the seminar to use their skills and the information gathered to become agents of change in the fight against the pandemic to help persuade people to adopt the correct behaviour and attitudes in society, so that this scourge will be suppressed, if not eliminated.

Witter also noted that the HIV/AIDS pandemic poses a serious challenge and warrants the involvement of all in the fight to arrest and reverse it, pointing out that more lives have been lost due to AIDS than those who died in World Wars I and II.