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'Training and awareness at work can help combat HIV'

Sep 15, 2009

Sensitising senior management and educating men and women about health and safety is key to preventing the spread of HIV at workplace, says Behrouz Shahandeh, Senior Technical Advisor, ILO/AIDS, Geneva. Speaking to OneWorld South Asia, he emphasises that a comprehensive policy must be formulated through broad consultation and dialogue.

Behrouz Shahandeh is the Senior Technical Adviser with ILO/AIDS, Geneva. He has over 25 yeas of experience in the International Labour Organisation with expertise in public health, including drug/ substance abuse programmes.

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Based in Geneva, he is also the Global Manager of ILO HIV/AIDS workplace projects being implemented in over 20 countries with the support of the US Department of Labour.

He played a key role in establishing the ILO’s global programme on HIV/AIDS, called ILO/AIDS and was also part of the core team that developed the ILO Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS in the world of work.

In an interview with OneWorld South Asia, he talks about the need for an effective policy on HIV/AIDS at workplace and greater commitment on part of the employers to implement it.

Excerpts from the interview:

OWSA: What are the challenges in implementing HIV workplace policies for employees?

Behrouz Shahandeh: Well, the majority of HIV-positive workers are between 15 and 49 years of age and in the most productive segment of the labour force. The economic impact is greatest when enterprises lose workers with skills, experience and institutional memory, which are hard to replace.

The fear of being ostracised by their colleagues or being fired by the employers on the pretext of being unfit prevents employees from optimising the benefits of the policy. Besides, adequate measures need to be in place to ensure that the confidentiality of those infected is not compromised.

Addressing stigma within the organisation – both as an objective of the policy itself and as a prerequisite of its effective implementation is, therefore, very critical.

To ensure that the HIV/AIDS policies are owned by the employees and not viewed as a management tool, it is important that all concerned stakeholders especially People Living with HIV (PLHIV) and members of the workers’ union are involved in the consultation process. This helps to gain the trust of the employees and in clarifying the position of the organisation on the issue.

OWSA: You were a part of the core team that developed the ILO Code of practice on HIV/AIDS in the world of work. Could you elaborate on this project?

BS: The ILO Code of Practice has also been endorsed by National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) and the Indian Network for People Living with HIV (INP +), the largest network of PLHIV in India. The project has worked with the key national employers’ organisations to get them to sign the ‘Indian Employers’ Statement of Commitment on HIV/AIDS’ in 2005.

The project has also brought together five central trade union centres to sign on a ‘Joint statement of commitment on HIV/AIDS of the central trade unions in India’ in 2007.

One of the key approaches adopted by the Project has been to collaborate with the enterprises to develop and implement HIV/AIDS policies and programmes for prevention, care and support for their employees.

The corporate groups and state-level enterprises were provided support to form HIV/AIDS committee to develop an appropriate policy, sensitise the senior management and key decision makers, develop a team of master trainers who would in turn train peer educators to carry out the HIV/AIDS education sessions.

In this way, the project aims to reduce employment-related discrimination against persons living with HIV/AIDS; reduce risk behaviours of workers; facilitate access to treatment, care and support; and maintain employment of workers living with HIV/AIDS in the targeted enterprises.
Involving persons living with HIV/AIDS is very important.

Many top executives and other decision-makers have never met them before. When they notice that they are fit to do their jobs and co-workers are not at risk, the decision-makers cooperate with our goals.

OWSA: The workplace mirrors, and sometimes aggravates gender inequities present in society. How can women be protected in such an environment?

BS: All programmes should be gender-sensitive, as well as sensitive to sexual orientation. This includes targeting both women and men explicitly, or addressing either women or men in separate programmes, in recognition of the different types and degrees of risk for men and women workers.

The ILO Code of Practice recommends zero tolerance for violence and harassment against women at work, making it a disciplinary offence.

I feel it is very important to provide workplace education for men and women on sexual and reproductive health, their social and economic roles, family responsibilities, working time, etc.

OWSA: Two months ago, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality. How do you look at this judgment?  In what way, do you think this will help check the spread of HIV?

BS: It is very important that HIV/AIDS prevention programmes take into account the reality of the sexual behaviour of men and women. Discussion about sexuality may be difficult and uncomfortable; in some cultures it is a taboo. But what is far more uncomfortable is thousands of unnecessary deaths from AIDS because people were too embarrassed, or did not approve of certain types of sexual behaviour.

I welcome this judgment. It will play a critical role in HIV prevention as because of such taboos, efforts to curb the virus were being hampered.

OWSA: Given the fact that more than 90% of the Indian workforce is in unorganised sector – scattered and constantly moving from one job to another – what kind of policy measures do you suggest to track such workers?

BS: Trade unions should make efforts to mobilise resources from bodies like NACO particularly to take up interventions in the informal economy workers as is demonstrated by some pilot interventions under the ILO projects.

I would reiterate that HIV/AIDS workplace polices should involve trade unions. In addition, management commitment and presence of motivated trainers play a very important role in policy development, dissemination and implementation. Therefore, policy work should be an integral part of the work plan of organisations, with an allocation of budget.

Advocacy too plays an important role in policy advocacy. Counselling and education about risks and safe practices should be incorporated in the prevention programmes to help bring about a change in behaviour.

Employers’ and workers’ organisations should demonstrate more commitment in implementing their policy statements.

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