South African law protects the rights of employees living with HIV/AIDS on paper, but the reality is that discrimination and denial still prevails in the workplace in a country which has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world.
We have the best legal frameworks around but this hasn't changed mindsets. People still get dismissed because of their HIV status. I handle HIV/AIDS discrimination cases almost every day, Jennifer Joni, an attorney for the AIDS Law Project told
Under the country's Employment Equity Act of 1998, no person may unfairly discriminate, directly or indirectly, against an employee, in any employment policy or practice, on one or more grounds, including ... HIV status. The act also prohibits testing of an employee to determine their HIV status unless the Labour Court justifies such testing.
But three years after the law was passed, not much had changed, Joni said.
The AIDS Law Project has noted a disturbing rise in the unfair dismissal of HIV-positive domestic workers. Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable, as they sometimes cannot claim the full benefits of the labour and employment laws.
These workers have no bargaining power whatsoever, Joni noted. Once they discover their employees are pregnant, an increasing number of employers are sending them for an HIV test, and if they are positive they are dismissed.
Joni blamed this on ignorance. Employers don't know enough about HIV transmission and assume the worst.
Brett Anderson-Terry, a consultant providing HIV/AIDS management and awareness training to corporations, agrees. The key thing is a lack of knowledge.
I am still getting people asking me about mosquitoes [as a method of HIV/AIDS transmission] and this is from all kinds of South Africans - white, black, educated people. People still think this is something you get when you have been promiscuous, Anderson-Terry explained.
Just recently, some staff members in one of the companies I work with refused to eat in the canteen because they discovered that one of the kitchen staff was HIV-positive, he added.
Misconceptions about the disease and a sense of complacency among management are additional problems Anderson-Terry has had to contend with.
Some clients and staff members have told me I deserve to die and it is people like me that are causing the disease, he said.
A lot of companies continue to provide education and awareness campaigns only for the perceived high-risk employees - low or semi-skilled workers.
Anderson-Terry said: Companies have yet to realise that all of us are at risk. They forget that educated people are also ignorant ... As far as they are concerned, its not their problem, they're safe.
Keith Markland, an HIV/AIDS coordinator for mining company De Beers, admits that workplace policies cannot effectively address stigma because it can be very subtle.
Beneath the hype surrounding recent announcements by some major companies in South Africa of their plans to provide HIV-positive workers with AIDS drugs has come a growing realisation that stigma might prevent many of their employees from taking advantage of the opportunity.
We are now rolling out our antiretroviral therapy programme but there is still a sense of mistrust about AIDS. These programmes are not going to work unless we get rid of all these attitudes, Markland said.
Stigma and discrimination remain the biggest hurdles, despite well-intentioned policies and drug programmes. Most HIV-positive staff members are afraid to disclose their status because they don't know what's going to happen to them, Joni said.
You need somebody living with the disease to make it real. At the end of the day, CEOs have a job to do - they are there to make businesses profitable so AIDS becomes secondary, Anderson-Terry noted.
Diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1999, Anderson-Terry has become involved in the Greater Involvement of People living with or affected by HIV/AIDS (GIPA) Workplace Model - a pilot programme run by the UN Development Programme and the World Health Organisation in South Africa to provide an opportunity for people living with HIV/AIDS (PWAs) to become involved in workplace responses to the epidemic.
The GIPA model uses the experience of PWAs to give a face to HIV/AIDS and create a supportive work environment for HIV-positive people.
The project trains people openly living with HIV/AIDS in HIV/AIDS information, positive living, dealing with disclosure and HIV/AIDS-related legal issues, Julia Hill, programme manager for GIPA, told PlusNews. The fieldworkers are then placed in private companies and government departments to set up or enrich workplace HIV/AIDS policies.
But Anderson-Terry cautioned that overcoming stigma would not happen overnight.
Company strategies have to change as the disease changes. This year they addressed access to antiretrovirals. Next year, they might have to look at access to food and then TB [tuberculosis]. They cannot look for a quick-fix pill.
For Joni, companies are not moving quickly enough. They have to act on all these policies so that they don't become pieces of paper gathering dust on someone's shelf, she warned. (Source:, (IRIN),29 November 2002)