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AIDS Activists Challenge New Controversial Law in El Salvador


AIDS activists in El Salvador are challenging a provision in a new law designed to protect the rights of people suffering from HIV-AIDS. The provision that is causing controversy allows employers to test workers for HIV. Advocates say the provision will open the door to discrimination in the workplace. The International Labor Organization says it knows of no other country with such a law.

Painted in large black letters on the green wall of Donald's barber shop, in one of San Salvador's largest shopping malls, is a sign informing customers that all the barbers here are screened regularly for HIV.

Shop manager Carlos Quiej says the management has had the policy in place for years. He says it is for the customers' safety.

Mr. Quiej says clients have a right to safety, and that they want to come to a safe place, where they will not be infected with anything. He says some people say they come to the shop because of this policy.

AIDS activists fear that the practice of screening employees for HIV will become more widespread, since the adoption late last year of an AIDS law. A provision in the law permits employers to screen current and prospective employees for HIV. Activists maintain this article will contribute to workplace discrimination against the estimated 20,000 Salvadorans thought to be infected with the virus.

Alexia Alvarado is a lawyer for a group of social organizations attempting to challenge the controversial article.

Ms. Alvarado says, while testing happened in the past, it was a debatable practice, but now it is protected by law. She says that it will be difficult for those with HIV to find a job in an already difficult labor market.

The law specifies that employers cannot fire someone because they are HIV positive, but Ms. Alvarado does not believe that this provision offers sufficient protection to those infected with HIV. She adds that employers will simply use other excuses to fire people with HIV.

The International Labor Organization's Code of Practice on HIV-AIDS and the workplace says testing should not be required as a condition of employment. While workplace testing does occur in other parts of the world, the ILO says it knows of no other country where it is sanctioned by law.

Proponents of the provision say it is intended to improve workplace safety. Representative Norman Quijano is a member of the legislature's health committee, which wrote the controversial article. He says he was elected to defend the rights of all Salvadorans, not just those who are HIV positive. He says that the law will not promote firing those with HIV.

Experts say the risk of becoming infected with HIV in the workplace is minimal.

Alex Gutierrez is HIV-positive and unemployed. He says he is thinking of trying to go to the United States. He says he had thought he might find work before, but that since the law was passed, he has little hope.

Activists have already filed suit in the country's supreme court, alleging the testing provision constitutes a violation of privacy. More suits are planned, alleging discrimination. Activists are also negotiating with legislators for the provision to be repealed.

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