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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

       

Domestic Workers And Aids Discrimination

This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations

Florence Tshabalala [not her real name] had been barely working for a month when her employer took her to the clinic for what was supposed to be a routine check-up. After being tested for HIV without her knowledge, she was told that her services as a domestic worker were no longer needed.

"She gave me my money for the month and some transport money and told me to go home, she didn't even tell me why," Florence told IRIN.

It was only after a visit to her local clinic in the Northern Cape province, that she found out why she was dismissed.

"I tested HIV-positive and then I went back to the clinic my boss took me to and the white sister asked me why I was here because she had told my boss I had AIDS," she said.

DOMESTIC WORKERS VULNERABLE

South African law protects the rights of employees living with HIV/AIDS on paper, but for domestic workers, such as Florence, the reality is very different.

"The law is very clear that employers are not allowed to conduct testing without consent and they are certainly not allowed to discriminate against those who are HIV-positive. But for the most part, employers of domestic workers seem to feel that this does not apply to them," Chloe Hardy of the AIDS Law Project told IRIN.

    

Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable. The nature of the industry has made it difficult for workers to enjoy the full benefits of the law, and the regulation of this sector is something the government has recently begun to consider.

But according to activists and social workers, the government still has a long way to go in protecting HIV-positive domestic workers.

The AIDS Law Project has noted a disturbing rise in the unfair dismissal of HIV-positive domestic workers. According to Hardy, the major problem is "constructive dismissal", where employees are harassed to such an extent that they are forced to resign. They are ordered not to touch food, or to eat from different utensils and even not to touch the children.

"We had one case where the employer would tell the kids 'don't go near the helper because she is going to die soon'," Hardy added.

According to Eunice Dhladhla, general secretary of the South African Domestic and Allied Worker's Union, HIV testing without the employee's knowledge is becoming increasingly prevalent.

"As soon as she [the worker] starts to lose a bit of weight or starts to cough and is ill, they [the employer] take her to their own doctor and subject her to a test," she told IRIN.

But most of these doctors will not provide counselling before or after the test and workers remain unaware of how to cope with their status.

RELUCTANCE TO DISCLOSE STATUS

Florence only received counselling at her local clinic. "They gave me all the help so now I accept and believe it. I even had the strength to tell my parents, now I must just tell the rest of my family," she said.

Consequently, domestic workers living with HIV/AIDS are reluctant to disclose their status. Mavis Kunene, a counsellor at Johannesburg's Esselen Street clinic calls it as a "catch-22 situation, if they don't disclose they lose their job and if they do and they are positive, they will still be fired."

This is especially true in rural areas, the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS (NAPWA) spokesman Thanduxolo Doro, noted.

Hardy agrees: "In smaller towns, farms and rural areas, there are very few support services available to those who are positive."

    

Despite the country's numerous policy and legal instruments that protect the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, many still do not know their rights have been violated.

Educating both employees and employers is crucial towards addressing this problem. Employers need to be taught about the medical aspects of HIV/AIDS and the methods of transmission.

"They need to understand that there is no reason why the [HIV] positive employee cannot play or touch the children," Hardy said. "Doctors also need to learn that if an employer brings a worker for a test, this is unethical without the worker's consent. They should not be in collusion with the employer."

But despite the relatively high levels of awareness in the country, many people balk at accommodating those living with HIV/AIDS in their homes, NAPWA's Doro said.

"Employers want to protect themselves and they are still sceptical [about the disease]," he added.

But the recent implementation of legislation protecting domestic workers was a hopeful sign, Kunene noted. "Now people realise that they will be taken to task for this and things will slowly fall into place," she added.

"Its not all negative, people are beginning to wake up and they can see that HIV/AIDS does affect them one way or the other," Kunene said.