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Targeting HIV/AIDS in the workplace

[Swaziland] Mbabane office worker.
Swazi employers have to address HIV/AIDS in the workplace (IRIN)

In a country where employers still discriminate against HIV-positive employees, Gladys Ndlangamandla a tall, soft-spoken woman of 33, is one of the lucky few.

When she revealed her HIV status, instead of being summarily dismissed, she was given a flexible workload for times when she would be unwell.

"For three years after learning I was HIV positive, I continued to work. I stock merchandise, and I must clean the shelves. But two weeks ago I fell sick - just yesterday I went back and I told my employers," she explained to PlusNews.

"I didn't know if they would fire me, but stocking merchandise was getting too strenuous. At the end of the day my back was so sore, and I was so weak that sometimes I missed work the next day because I was not well," she said.

"I told them my condition. They listened to me, and they were very sympathetic. I asked to knock off after four hours, because I am no longer strong enough - they agreed."

The Swaziland Business Coalition against HIV/AIDS is hoping their new HIV/AIDS workplace programme will elicit a similar response from employers in the country with the world's highest HIV prevalence.

"We are on a campaign to assist employers to deal with individuals who are infected with HIV in the same manner as those people who have any other chronic or debilitating illness," the coalition's coordinator, Makhosazana Hlatshwayo, said at a press conference.

The eight-month project will address the fear and "negative attitudes" faced by many HIV-positive Swazis in the workplace, Hlatshwayo noted.

Petite domestic worker Albertina Dube could have benefited from such an initiative, particularly in an industry where the treatment of workers has been difficult to regulate.

"Five years after I learned I was HIV positive, I got sick. My employer took me to see Dr V, who was also his doctor. This doctor told my employer that I was HIV positive," she related.

"My employer took me off from work. He said, 'Now you won't be able to work hard, so it is better that you go and stay home'." It was unreasonable, because I had been HIV [positive] for five years and I was working all along, without any problems," Dube said.

She went to the AIDS Support Centre (TASC) in the central commercial town of Manzini, which sent TASC counsellors to educate Dube's former boss.

"They were afraid I would pass AIDS on to their children. They would not listen to any of the facts about the virus," she said.

Swazi employers and businesses can no longer afford to ignore the pandemic. Recent findings from the Central Bank of Swaziland have revealed a decline in overall worker productivity in recent years - a trend largely attributable to the impact of HIV/AIDS.

"AIDS is a major economic problem: all employers are faced with it. Middle and upper management are affected as much as shop floor workers. Companies invest in training, and this is lost when the employee is incapacitated," said activist and former president of the Swaziland Chamber of Commerce, Musa Hlope.

One of the goals of the Swaziland Business Coalition against HIV/AIDS is to come up with an HIV/AIDS workplace policy that will provide practical guidelines on time off and duty transfers like Gladys Ndlangamandla's, and offer suggestions on how to handle sick leave, early retirement or eventual dismissal.

"It is best that a set of rules is agreed upon by all - it makes it easier for an employer. Right now, we are floundering around in this terrible crisis, and this has led to mistakes and panic," said an Mbabane financial consultant, who asked not to be named.

According to the financial consultant, professional working environments are no different from factory or agricultural plantations when it comes to HIV/AIDS.

"There can be a strong employer-employee bond but, in the face of this disease, fear comes in, and all that goodwill can be lost," he acknowledged.

The business coalition's project was launched very recently, and it is still too soon to tell whether employers will get the message.

"There has been a lot of AIDS education, and most Swazis know the basic scientific facts about HIV. But it is not changing anyone's sexual behaviour to any measurable degree, and this throws into question whether the AIDS message is getting through at all," warned Dr Derek von Wissell, director of the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/AIDS.

To avoid a general message, which could prove ineffectual, the coalition has gone for a more focused approach. "We will speak the business person's language," said Hlatshwayo. "We'll talk about profit and personnel, and how to mitigate the impact of AIDS on both."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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