HIV/AIDS IS A LABOUR ISSUE
The HIV virus was identified in
1981. Though the media gave it much coverage, they portrayed it as a
homosexual disease; governments did nothing. As a result the number
of victims grew uncontrollably before the authorities recognised
that gay men were in fact its victims, before they fought it
seriously. It still has a homophobic stigma, and has now killed over
25 million people.
AIDS is not recognised as a labour issue, especially in the Third
World. Yet it should be for two key reasons – victims suffer
discrimination caused by fear and ignorance of employers and
workmates, and it kills workers. ALU solidly supports the
International Labour Organisation’s Code that helps workers to put
the issue on the collective bargaining table.
Health care workers are a key group at risk of contracting the virus
from infected patients, first because of the intimate way in which
they deal with patients, and second from accidental needle pricks;
nurses and workers dealing with hospital waste are most at risk.
These workers can be protected by disposing of used syringes in
solid containers rather than the usual plastic bags. Syringes are
broken after use to prevent recycling. Breaking them is risky
demanding special procedures. Syringes that assist in safe disposal
are available. But these measures cost money.
Sex work is an obvious HIV-risk occupation. Sex workers who are
educated in sexual health have regular medical checks to detect
sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, and insist that
clients wear condoms.
In most of Asia Pacific, HIV/AIDS is not regarded as an occupational
disease. This must be changed, particularly in the health sector.
Treatment and compensation must be available for workers who
contract HIV at work; doctors and occupational lawyers need to be
fully aware of the implications of HIV at work.
However many national governments’ failure to educate the public
about the disease is only matched by their unwillingness to spend
the money necessary to defeat it.
In July 2003, noting that 42 million are now living with HIV/AIDS,
former ‘terrorist’ now South African celebrity Nelson Mandela said,
“These numbers are staggering ... By all accounts, we are dealing
with the greatest health crisis in human history.”
Mandela accused European leaders of not responding effectively to
the AIDS crisis. In contrast to his earlier condemnation of US
policy on Iraq when he described President Bush as one who “cannot
think properly”, he commended Bush for a recent promise to spend
US$3 million a year for five years in Africa, however the praise was
tempered by warning Bush that the promise must be honoured or else
Let us hope that Mandela does indeed monitor US spending on AIDS, as
Bush’s promise of money for Africa sits uneasily alongside his
policy of sexual abstinence to defeat AIDS as well as his recent
choice to head the AIDS programme, Randall Tobias. AIDS activists
fear that Tobias, who has no expertise regarding public health but
who was recently a drug company executive. The danger they see is
that instead of selecting the cheapest anti-retro viral drugs
available for HIV treatment, Tobias will spend the money on
expensive drugs patented by US firms.
These concerns are deepened by the implications of a conference held
by the right-wing group, American Enterprise Institute, that Bush
consults for advice. The conference was entitled ‘NGOs: the Growing
Power of an Un-Elected Few’. Ignoring the danger of parallels
between this condemnation of non-governmental organisations (NGO)
and the dubious way Bush himself was elected, the conference was
premised on denouncing NGO policies as hostile to US interests and
NGOs and bodies like the UN, have been key rallying point in
promoting HIV/AIDS awareness. The thrust of the American Enterprise
Institute’s reasoning is that NGO functions should be replaced by US
government departments and private companies. Thus, even if Bush’s
promised ‘donation’ for Africa
is forthcoming, most of it will quickly return to US accounts.
Added to these worries, the UN Global Fund to Fight AIDS,
Tuberculosis, and Malaria is very low; rich countries are donating
less just when it needs more. For example
contribution is reported to be one third down on recent annual
Returning to Bush’s call for abstinence to fight HIV, it must be
remembered that not only does this policy ignore the fact that much
of HIV, especially outside Africa, is spread by infected blood
products and drug users sharing needles, it also ignores the fact
that male culture in many societies involves deceiving partners and
patronising sex workers; it will take more than sound bytes to
change their behaviour.
Free condoms and syringes
In modern cities condoms are easily available, but in much of the
Third World where they are desperately needed to combat HIV, they
First World drug users have proved that the only way to stop them
sharing needles is to give out free ones; free syringes are now
available under exchange schemes for intravenous drug users in the
First World, a policy that must be extended to the Third World.
In 1998 the US Department of Health and Human Services reported that
needle exchange projects led addicts to drug counselling and
rehabilitation, reduced risky behaviour by 80 percent, and cut HIV
transmission by over 30 percent.
A study of 81 cities around the world found a six percent increase
in HIV infection rates in cities without needle exchange schemes,
whereas in cities with schemes, rates fell by six percent.
Free donation and distribution of condoms and syringes can help to
stop the spread of HIV, but without mass education about the virus
and how it is transmitted, will not be successful. Therefore condoms
and syringes must be donated and distributed freely in parallel with
high profile HIV education programmes.
Governments that can find plenty of cash for military conquests must
recognise the greater importance of investing to protect the health
of the international workforce