What happens to HIV-positive employees?

Workers being tested for HIV

A study and its recommendations for workplace programmes

by Friederike Baasner-Weihs and Martin Weihs

Many companies encourage their staff to get an HIV test

An increasing number of small and mid-sized South African companies implement HIV workplace programmes. One main objective of these programmes is to encourage as many employees as possible to take an HIV test. To make testing easy, many companies even provide HIV testing services on site. HIV-testing-RSA_resize

Employees who test HIV positive are referred to public or private health facilities for treatment, care and support services. Since the test results are confidential, however, the employers don’t know what really happens to their staff after they got a positive test result. How has knowing their status influenced their lives? Do they face any challenges? Are these challenges affecting their ability to work? Without this information, it seems difficult to assess the actual benefits of the workplace programmes.

And what happens after the test? A study

This is why the private sector component of the South African GIZ Multi-Sectoral HIV and AIDS Prevention Programme (MHIVP) decided to conduct a rigorous study of the situation of employees who tested HIV positive at their workplace. With the findings, GIZ intended to help improve workplace programmes and the way they are evaluated. GIZ’s partner for this project were the University of KwaZulu Natal and the Automotive Industry Development Centre Eastern Cape, an agency of the Eastern Cape Development Corporation mandated to assist automotive companies to become more competitive at the global level. 

HIV positive employees feel unsupported and discriminated

The study results showed that many companies are not sufficiently prepared to guarantee privacy and the required support to employees with a positive test result: The majority of study participants reported that once they had tested positive, they were confronted with a myriad of challenges in the workplace, at home, in the clinics and the community.

A large portion of the participants in this research (70-80%) feel that their companies still discriminate against people living with HIV and that the confidentiality of their HIV status is not assured. Hence, a significant number of participants expressed fears of losing their jobs, and this even led them to skip important clinic appointments for blood tests and replenishment of their antiretroviral medication.

Several participants reported to have worked on days when they felt ill, because they were afraid to go on sick leave. Whilst the majority of the participants felt they were treated well by their colleagues, many felt badly treated by their companies.

Many participants reported situations in which they had been forced to disclose their HIV status, often leading to embarassment and isolation, at times even to the loss of their job. Some examples are reported on the conference poster at the bottom of this page.  

Workplace programmes need to monitor discriminatory practices and act against them

Whilst workplace programmes have little influence on the way their HIV-positive employees are treated in the community, they can make sure that – once they know their status – their resilience is built for the difficult situations they may face in the future, including advice on where they can find support to help them live positively.

More importantly, companies running HIV workplace programmes must ensure that the rights of employees living with HIV are protected, including their right not to disclose their status at their workplace. The workplace programmes should entail regular reviews of policy and procedures, as well as training for managers at all levels. Furthermore, feedback from HIV positive employees should be included in the workplace programmes’ monitoring and evaluation systems so that discriminatory practices can be identified and acted upon. Finally, companies running workplace programmes can join with other stakeholders in the field of HIV to find ways of addressing discriminatory practices that HIV-positive employees are exposed to in the community, including at health facilities, the police or their children’s schools.

First results of the study were presented as a poster at the 6th SA Aids Conference in Durban in June 2013 (see below or download here. For the final research report please contact Angela Kurth

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