Over the years, HIV has become a significant health, economic and workplace issue with the potential to negatively affect productivity and development.
Stigma and discrimination help to fuel the spread of HIV, standing as major obstacles to prevention services as well as to treatment, care and support for people living with the virus.
While there is no cure for HIV, the virus can be controlled. Stigma and discrimination against persons living with the virus can take a toll on a country’s productive sector. HIV-related stigma and discrimination, especially in the workplace, can also lead to the abuse of workers’ rights.
Taking this into consideration, the Government of Jamaica, employers and workers, working as a team, have taken action to establish an appropriate framework to address HIV at the workplace.
In 2003, The National HIV Workplace Policy was developed and approved by Cabinet, in 2005.
HIV Programme Manager, Occupational Safety and Health Unit, Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Petagaye Pryce tells JIS News that the agreement was formed as a move to address the issue nationally.
The Programme places special emphasis on the recognition of HIV as a workplace issue “and looking at how we are going to improve the standard of living and the working conditions to reduce stigma and discrimination as it relates to HIV based on people’s real or perceived status,” she says.
She notes that the National Workplace Policy, now a Green Paper in Parliament, utilises the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) 10 key principles and code of conduct on HIV.
“Principle one speaks about HIV as a workplace issue, saying that we need to recognise that HIV is something that must be treated and dealt with in the workplace, specifically because of the age cohorts that is affected by HIV,” Miss Pryce explains.
She adds that a “majority of HIV cases fall between ages 15 to 65, while the majority of new infections are 14 to 24, and overall persons living with HIV fall in the category of 14 to 65.
Data shows that the Caribbean is second highest for HIV prevalence rate. With this in mind, the Government is aiming to prevent not only the spread of the disease but prevalence in discrimination against persons living with the virus.
“If we do not address HIV in the workplace we will have a situation of reduced productivity, declining labour cost, increased absenteeism, production will be going down, many companies, and the country on a whole, would be grossly affected by it, in addition to the economic loss of having to provide additional care and support for HIV positive persons,” she states.
It is against this background that it was necessary to have a national policy to guide organisations on how they should treat HIV in the workplace. Companies that adhere to the ILO’s standards have reached an agreement on how to deal with the issue. They have agreed also not to infringe on the rights of persons living with HIV.
“Once you are physically fit to work, you have a right to your employment so the ten principles also speaks to non-screening, to inclusion and exclusion of employment, (and) confidentiality. It means that… it is not mandatory for an (individual) to disclose his or her HIV status, because it says non-disclosure… should be observed,” she informs.
The Ministry of Labour has been working to sensitise Jamaicans in an effort to help them understand basic facts about HIV as a means of preventing discrimination, especially in the workplace.
“At the Ministry of Labour, we have our workplace programme that we implement that speaks to education for staff, in terms of giving everybody basic sensitisation for them to understand the basic facts about HIV (and) HIV in the workplace, which involves understanding the ten ILO principles, the meaning of them and how they are to be adequately utilised. Why it is not necessary to stigmatise and why it is not necessary to discriminate,” Miss Pryce says.
The Ministry has also engaged over 200 members of staff in basic sensitisation training island-wide. So far, 13 officers have been trained to provide voluntary counselling and testing for persons who feel they are at risk of having contracted HIV. For more information on the National Workplace Policy persons may call the Ministry of Labour at 967-5958.
By Athaliah Reynolds-Baker, JIS Reporter