HIV/AIDS and your business

Statistics show that South Africa has the largest total of it's population living with HIV/AIDS. The productive members of society aged 18 to 36  have the highest rate of infection. This means that, if the disease isn't managed correctly, your business can be affected through a narrowing customer and service provider base, not to mention the loss of employees due to illness or death. Is there anything you can do about it?

Why the need to look at HIV/AIDS for SMEs?

In South Africa, about 23 million people work in the formal and informal sectors, most work in SME's. This reflects the key role of the SME sector on the economy. As a growing epidemic in South Africa, there are various economic effects that HIV/AIDS can have on your small business.

Why is HIV/AIDS a risk for SMEs?

A study by the University of Port Elizabeth identified the disease as one of the three main factors that cause nearly 80% of South African start-ups to fail every year. The loss of a key employee due to AIDS can prove catastrophic, since in a small firm there may be no-one available or capable of taking on the specialised tasks of the employee too ill to work.

Why should SMEs care even if they have no affected staff working in the business?

The rate of infection is highest in the productive age groups (the working members of society). The economic effects will impact first on the household and family, then will ripple out to businesses and the macro-economy. The loss of income in the household equates to a shrinking consumer base, which will have an impact on all sectors of the economy.

What can a typical SME do to manage HIV/AIDS in the business?

  • Learn the facts about the disease (from a credible source)
  • Raise awareness amongst employees around all issues related to prevent and treatment
  • Have a wellness policy in place

Where can I learn more?

There are many training programmes and sources of information available. Look at the resources section on this site and try to find out about government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and religious organisations that may provide HIV/AIDS-related services.

Where to start - SMEs often do not have resources to put a programme in place?

It is not necessary to confront the problem alone. Pool resources by partnering with other local businesses. Partnerships can help SMEs analyse risk factors, design and implement focused programs, leverage resources and learn from each other's experiences.

There are often also other resources in the wider community including NGOs, faith-based or medical organisations, public programs undertaken by Ministries of Health, initiatives by Chambers of Commerce or other Associations.

Can an employee be forced to undergo tests and disclose the outcome?

It is against the law. No employee, or applicant for employment, may be required by their employer to undergo an HIV test in order to ascertain their HIV status.

Can an employer refuse to employ someone based on their HIV status?

No. An employer may refuse to employ a person who is clearly too ill to work (for whatever reason). But to refuse to employ someone simply because they are known or suspected to have HIV unfairly discriminates against them on the grounds of HIV status and is therefore unlawful. An employer could only refuse to employ someone as a person with HIV if being HIV negative was an inherent requirement of the job.

Do employees have the right to confidentiality at work?

Yes. The individuals HIV status is private, it is not work related. There is no legal duty on the employee to disclose their status to the employer as it is not contagious. With confidentiality, the rules are the same as in the medical profession. If you tell your employer about your HIV status, he/she can only inform other people with your consent. Telling other employees without your consent is a breach of confidentiality and means that damages can be claimed from the employer.

Can an employee be dismissed for being infected with HIV/AIDS?

As to be expected, many people with HIV start to become ill with AIDS. During this time, an employee may use up a lot of sick leave, and his/her capacity may be affected. All employees have a right to sick leave and an employer has no right to discriminate against or dismiss an employee who uses these rights. However, an employer is allowed to dismiss an employee on the grounds of incapacity and poor work performance, even if the employee has not used all their sick leave.

The LRA Code of Good Practice sets out very clear procedures for employers and employees when dealing with dismissals for incapacity. The principle of the Code is that employers and employees "should treat one another with mutual respect".

What can the employer do to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS?

HIV positive people need HIV / AIDS education to provide help and support for them, enabling them to understand and to cope with the knowledge that they are infected with HIV. Education for HIV positive people should help to prevent the onward transmission of HIV. Workplace programmes such as an HIV/AIDS policy, voluntary counselling and testing (VCT), and antiretroviral therapy (ART) provision can also be administered.

When receiving a HIV positive test result, many people feel they have been given a death sentence. HIV / AIDS education and counselling for HIV-positive people has several main goals:

  • To help people to cope with the trauma of a HIV positive test result
  • To inform HIV positive people about the nature of HIV and AIDS
  • To help them to confront any discrimination they may face as a result of being infected with HIV.
  • To enable them to lead full and healthy lives
  • To enable them, should they wish to, to have an active sexual life without passing the infection on to anyone else
  • To ensure that the infection isn't passed on by any other means - the sharing of injecting equipment, for example

Education to challenge discriminations

In some countries people who are living with HIV/AIDS do not know about their rights in society. They need to be educated so they are able to challenge the discrimination, stigma and bias that they meet in society. Laws, charities and government organisations can help people to challenge discrimination and to be aware of the organisations that can provide them with the help and support they need to do this.

Education, Awareness and Prevention

Education is the most effective measure in the prevention of HIV/AIDS. The employer can provide HIV/AIDS life-skills training and empowerment programmes for all its employees. These can focus on:

  • Education on health promotion
  • Appropriate prevention and management of STIs and TB
  • Condom promotion and distribution
  • Counselling on risk reduction

What does the law say?

Employment Equity Act

The Code was issued in terms of Section 54(1)(a) of the Employment Equity Act, No. 55 of 1998, and is based on the principle that no person may be unfairly discriminated against on the basis of their HIV status. In order to assist employers and employees to apply this principle consistently in the workplace, the Code makes reference to other pieces of legislation.

No employee, or applicant for employment, may be required by their employer to undergo an HIV test in order to ascertain their HIV status. HIV testing by or on behalf of an employer may only take place where the Labour Court has declared such testing to be justifiable in accordance with Section 7(2) of the Employment Equity Act.

The Act applies to all employers and workers and protects workers and job seekers from unfair discrimination, and also provides a framework for implementing affirmative action.

Where can I find more information on HIV/AIDS and my business?

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