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AIDS Conference Addresses Labor Shortage Caused by Epidemic - 2002-07-11

The U.N. International Labor Office says the economic and social impact of AIDS in Africa is far more severe than previously thought. A new report says the epidemic is severely undermining development and the deaths of millions are robbing African countries of the human skills they need to progress.

You may be familiar by now with the staggering numbers issued by the U.N. AIDS program. Three-fourths of the world's 40 million HIV infections are in Africa. An estimated 50 million sub-Saharan Africans will have died of HIV-related illnesses by 2010, leaving at least 25 million orphans.

The numbers alone are astonishing, but the International Labor Office report released at the Barcelona AIDS conference finds the impact of these losses even more staggering.

"Human resources are being lost at a terrifying rate across a range of African countries," said Desmond Cohen, author of the ILO report. "The scale of the impact is now intensifying and is substantial, so that the probability of achieving the sustainable development targets that have been set by the international community in areas like poverty and education are simply not going to be achieved."

The AIDS epidemic is concentrated in the working age population. Mr. Cohen's study shows that across all occupational sectors in sub-Saharan Africa, it is becoming increasingly difficult to replace the workers the disease kills.

The head of the ILO's Global AIDS Program, Franklyn Lisk, says that as HIV claims employees in essential public and private services, many countries are finding it harder and harder to sustain current levels of economic development.

"We are talking not only about loss of productivity," he said, "but we are talking about critical skills related to management performance, for example."

Mr. Lisk says it is wrong to believe that these losses can be replenished from a vast pool of unemployed workers. Included in the mounting toll are the very doctors and health care workers needed to treat HIV patients and promote behaviors to prevent others from acquiring the virus.

Desmond Cohen says the comparable death of teachers is undermining training for the next generation of workers, including the millions of AIDS orphans. "How will societies impacted by this scale of losses of parental support and community support for the next productive generation actually sustain production? Who is going to educate and train and provide the skills and provide nutrition and food for such enormous numbers of children," he asked.

The ILO assessment says this loss of workers is eroding the income and savings potential of African households, business, and governments, and will lead to falling demand, reduced investment, and production.

The U.N. AIDS Program estimates that annual income per person in sub-Saharan Africa is falling by as much as one-percent a year. Production output in the hardest hit nations may drop by eight percent in 2010.

Despite the growing labor problem the epidemic is causing, Franklyn Lisk says labor ministers are not active partners in government efforts to deal with it. The same complaint is voiced by trade union officials, like Andrew Kailembo, the General Secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions' African branch in Nairobi.

"Most of the African governments are not supporting the efforts of the trade union movement, but the trade union movement is not waiting for the governments because a lot of our people are dying," Mr. Kailembo said. "That is the reason why we have embarked on a number of programs."

But the International Labor Office report says labor groups and employers must become more involved in anti-AIDS efforts. It also recommends that African governments realign health and educational systems to reflect the changing needs of their economies.

For education, this means less money for colleges and universities and more for primary and secondary schools. The ILO says new technologies must be developed to substitute for increasingly scarce labor, and alternative ways found to socialize and train the growing millions of orphans.