Between and 35 percent of South Africa’s workers are HIV positive – depending on which statistics you believe. Sharon Davis looks at workers’ fear of revealing their status.

But whichever figures you accept it still remains that a significant percentage of South African’s, who fall within the economically active portion of the population, are HIV positive. This raises the rather delicate question of whether employees should be honest about their HIV status at work.

Those who are against revealing their status fear losing their jobs and stigmatisation from co-workers – but for most people who have revealed their status they have found a growing community of support and assistance with access to life-prolonging information and medication.

German family-owned luxury vehicle manufacturer, BMW SA, based in Rosslyn, Pretoria, has actively encouraged people to know their status and embarked on a education programmes both on the prevention of HIV and AIDS and living with HIV and AIDS. Dr Natalie Mayet, BMW SA’s manager for Health and Occupation Medicine, said that almost 90 percent of the employees at the Rosslyn plant had been voluntarily tested for infection, and of those tested, between 6 and 6,5 percent are HIV positive.

“It’s not about a virus,” said Dr Mayet. “It’s about people.” Last year the plant had 160 HIV positive employees. Of these, 30 employees were on Anti-Retrovirals (ARVs) to boost their immune system. Dr Mayet emphasised that the disease was manageable, citing examples of three employees who where unable to work as a result of developing full-blown AIDS, but with treatment and counselling these employees were able to return to work, in their previous positions.

For businesses like BMW SA and Eskom, it is in fact a strategic business decision to provide support for the prevention and management of HIV and AIDS. The potential cost to business in terms of lost production due to illness, or the recruiting and training of new staff is high, so most businesses prefer to manage the impact of HIV and AIDS through comprehensive programmes, providing support to those both infected and affected.

Eskom, our national electricity supplier, committed itself to fight against HIV and AIDS from 1987 through the implementation of various strategies including HIV and AIDS education, policies and procedures to create a workplace free of discrimination and stigmatisation, as well as care and support for families, reaching out beyond the workforce into the affected communities.

“We should encourage people to know their status, said Mpho Letlape, Eskom’s Human Resources Director. “We should encourage those infected to have regular blood tests so that they can start taking ARVs at the appropriate time – before they get really sick.”

“By encouraging testing and the use of nutrition and ARVs we will help people to remain both healthy and economically active for much longer. The individuals will be able to lead an enjoyable and almost normal life; they will be able to work and support their families; and they will continue to contribute productively to the national economy,” said Letlape.

Martin Vosloo is one example of how honesty about HIV status paid off. Diagnosed with HIV in 1990, he joined Eskom as a contract worker to address staff on the realities of living with HIV and AIDS in 1997, and was recently employed by Eskom in a new position as a full-time employee on medical aid.

Busi Zulu is Eskom’s head of Planning and Design. She was diagnosed with HIV in January 1996 and has embraced the support systems offered by the company, both at work and at home, and gained sufficient courage and self worth to lead Eskom’s corporate division AIDS Support Group which includes souse support and work-related AIDS issues support.

All of Eskom’s staff is on medical aid, and the coverage is comprehensive; including the cost of ARVs, which Busi started taking twice a day in 2002. Busi, along with Martin, has been active in encouraging people to face up to HIV and AIDS and play an instrumental role in communicating correct and relevant information to those infected. They help them to overcome fears and teach and encourage them to live and embrace life, despite the disease.

Moving away from large companies to smaller organisations who do not have HIV and AIDS programmes in place – what then?

John Ndlovu (not his real name as he fears stigmatisation from his colleagues) works for a small company in a rural area just outside Durban. He discovered that he is infected with HIV only two months ago, and has told only his mother and his employers about his status.

He has not yet found the courage to tell his wife and children for fear of her angry response. In broken English he explained that it was important to him for his employers to understand that he was sick and not just shirking. He admitted that at first he was scared of losing his job, but now he has taken so much time off work due to the illness, that he found the courage to tell his employers in the hope that they would understand when he is not well enough to work.

Although the small company is not able to offer the benefits of counselling and ARVs offered at larger organisations, they have at least been able to offer Ndlovu moral and spiritual support at a time when one can see he is still trying to come to terms with having contracted HIV, and they are encouraging him to eat healthy meals and to visit the counselling centre nearby. – Heartlines Features

Written by Heartlines

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