News / Health

HIV/AIDS Pose Risks for Small Businesses in South Africa

25-year-old South African, Lawrence Jet who is HIV-positive lies on his bed (file photo)
25-year-old South African, Lawrence Jet who is HIV-positive lies on his bed (file photo)

The cost of preventing and treating AIDS in the workplace can be prohibitively expensive, especially for small and medium-sized businesses.  At the same time, the cost of doing nothing can be even more expensive.  Redpeg is a private organization that designs comprehensive HIV/AIDS programs for small and medium-sized businesses.  

A survey of more than 1,000 companies in South Africa shows almost 33 percent were negatively affected by HIV/AIDS.  The survey by the Bureau for Economic Research also finds a further 43 percent expect their operations and profits to be adversely affected within five years.  

This comes as no surprise to Redpeg.  Tracy Jeanpierre, the organization's Global Fund Manager for HIV World Place Program, says too many companies take a gunshot approach to HIV/AIDS.

No follow-ups

For example, she notes small businesses will offer training in volunteer counseling and testing to employees on World AIDS Day and then not follow up on the program.  

"So, what we do is we work with workplaces to help them understand what prevalence is within the workplace and how that is likely to impact functioning of their business," she explained.  "And, then we help them to develop strategies to mitigate that impact."  

Redpeg has trained more than 180 organizations on how to manage HIV/AIDS in the workplace.   These programs are funded by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria through the Department of Health in South Africa.

Six years ago, the group began working with Air Liquide South Africa, a company that supplies industrial gases for different applications.  

Jeanpierre says at first employees knew little about prevention and the link between HIV and sexually transmitted disease.  But, after Redpeg began its training programs, she says, levels of knowledge increased dramatically.

"So, people now understand, for example, you do not just use a condom once, you have to use a condom consistently and you have to use a condom with all partners if you do have multiple partners," Jeanpierre said.    

Keep the momentum going

Air Liquide employs about 600 staff, largely composed of professional and skilled workers.  Human Resources Director, Derek Wilson, says the company is committed to retaining a stable workforce.  He says a successful HIV/AIDS program is critical to achieving that goal.

"I think we are having a mutual benefit in that we have healthy employees working for an organization who can add value and can be developed because we take an individual in terms of training," he said. "And, if we did not put anything into place and you are developing people and they are dying, you know you cannot grow and expand your business."  

Stigma attached to disease

Occupational Health Practitioner at Air Liquide, Joyce Marshall, says people are willing to talk openly about their HIV-status in the clinic.  But, she says they are unwilling to make their status publicly known because of the stigma attached to this sexually transmitted disease.  And, this makes it difficult to contain the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  

She says counseling and testing are available to all employees.  And, she says those who are HIV-positive get free anti-retroviral treatment.

"This is actually, ultimately where change is happening in our society," she noted.  "People who previously would have died of full-blown AIDS are getting onto ARVs [anti-retrovirals] and their neighbors see them come from skin and bone back to normal health.  And, so what is happening on the ground is a word of mouth spreading of the good news that you do not have to die from HIV.

Redpeg says small companies will not survive if they do not look after their skilled people and if there is not a parallel strategy to train new people. Given the scope of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa, the organization says companies without a viable response to HIV in the workplace are likely to go under.

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