Shock Figures On HIV/Aids in Workplace

( [email protected] ) Jun 26, 2003 01:23 PM EDT

About 3% of the South African workforce - or about 500 000 people -could have full-blown Aids by 2010, Department of Labour guidelines on HIV/Aids have forecast.

The projected rate of 2,9% in the terminal stage of the illness represents a three-fold increase since 2001, when it stood at 0,93%. Statistics South Africa estimates the current economically active population at 16,5-million, including a million in the informal sector.

The guidelines, released this week by Minister of Labour Membathisi Mdladlana in Pretoria, paint a grim picture of the impact of the disease on the most productive age groups, which are also the most vulnerable.

Men's life expectancy is expected to drop to 43 years in 2005 and 38 years in 2010 from 49 years in 2001 if there is no HIV/Aids-related intervention. Similarly, life expectancy of women was 52 years in 2001, but is likely to drop to 43 in 2005 and 37 years in 2010 unless there is effective intervention.

In contrast with Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Mdladlana did not mince his words over HIV/Aids in his budget speech. "HIV causes Aids," he said, adding that the epidemic was one of the biggest challenges for employers and workers.

"HIV/Aids is having a devastating effect on all South African workplaces and the economy. Its impact can be seen through an increase in absenteeism and sick leave, staff turnover and lower staff morale," he told Parliament on Wednesday. "Since there is no known cure for Aids, prevention of HIV infection remains critical."

Following requests from employers, the technical assistance guidelines were released this week as the department's contribution to the fight against the epidemic. The department's code of good conduct was released in 2000.

Already Anglogold and Goldfields have signed agreements with trade unions to provide anti-retroviral treatment and co-fund immune system boosters, while banning discrimination aganst workers infected with HIV. Impala Platinum Limited also has an anti-discrimination policy.

Mdladlana told Parliament the guidelines are part of a package of initiatives aimed at preventing unfair discrimination in the workplace. They will equip employers, workers and trade unions to deal with the impact of the disease.

It is estimated that about 30% of the mining workforce is HIV-positive - a finding that prompted the mining houses last year to institute HIV/Aids policies and treatment options.

While most in the government maintain that tuberculosis (TB) is the leading killer in South Africa, and few ministers or officials mention HIV/Aids without TB and malaria, the guidelines speak clearly on the relationship between TB and Aids. "TB is the most common opportunistic infection and the most frequent cause of death in people living with HIV in Africa," it notes.

Key aspects of the 73-page technical assistance guidelines include anti-discrimination policies from recruitment to remuneration and dismissal, a step-by-step guide on how to draw up a HIV/Aids company policy, the role of confidential testing and counselling, and workplace education and awareness programmes.

The guidelines make frequent reference to court judgements on workers' rights against discrimination and legislation like the Employment Equity Act.

There are several simple checklists on confidential counselling, health and safety policies and the elimination of discrimination. On managing the epidemic in the workplace the guidelines recommend the establishment of HIV/Aids committees, representing employers, trade unions, workers and those living with the virus.

A "Do and Don't" checklist states: "Do report all incidents involving blood and body fluids", "Don't assume you know who is living with HIV/Aids in a situation of occupational exposure" and "Don't attempt to identify and isolate employees living with HIV/Aids".

The guidelines by the labour department follow the successful adoption of its prior code of good practice by the International Labour Organisation.