Having an HIV and AIDS programme at the workplace saves lives in countries badly hit by the epidemic. But it also saves money for companies by reducing absenteeism and staff turnover. “If the employee is healthy, the company is also healthy”, said Boitshepo Balozwi at Scania in Botswana, one of the companies participating in the Swedish Workplace HIV and AIDS Programme.
John Mahono had worked as a mechanic at Scania in Botswana for three years when he in 2010 participated in the World AIDS celebrations organized by the company. While listening to a testimony given by a person living with HIV John became a bit worried since he had noticed his health had deteriorated over the past year and he decided to face his fears. John went to get tested at the company’s health care provider and the result came back positive.
John felt devastated but had no time to feel sorry for himself. Through Scania he received counselling and was advised to enrol in the Botswana government treatment programme. Today, John advises the rest of his co-workers not to be scared to test for HIV:
“It’s not easy, but the sooner you know your status the better. We have seen so many people die when all they needed was to test, start treatment and stay alive.”
As part of the Scania HIV and AIDS programme, John has access to nutritional support, care and counselling. This helps him to maintain a good diet, which is vital in boosting the immune system.
The programme at Scania in Botswana is part of the Swedish Workplace HIV and AIDS Programme (SWHAP). SWHAP was jointly initiated in 2004 by the International Council of Swedish Industry (NIR) and the Industrial and Metal Workers’ Union of Sweden (IF Metall) in South Africa, and the programme receives funding from Sida. Since then it has expanded to include Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The goals of SWHAP are to have employees know their HIV status, prevent new infections and give them access to treatment. This is done through awareness raising, the provision of testing and counselling and by giving access to treatment. Some companies have comprehensive treatment programmes run by external service providers while other workplaces mainly provide support with referral to government clinics.
SWHAP and the companies co-fund the programme for three years. The funding works as a carrot and helps mitigate the risk to the company of launching a programme. After the initial period the idea is that the activities will continue on the company’s own budget, while realising it makes good business sense. So far, not a single one of the companies that have started the programme has stopped when the funding from SWHAP has ceased.
The spread of HIV and AIDS is not only a social disaster in many African countries but also leads to economic loss. Both sick leave and high staff turnover cost companies a lot of money.
Companies with a well-informed workforce have fewer new infections, which means that some of them have also been able to lower their insurance premiums and pension payments. SWHAP also makes sense for unions. The project was initiated after South African metal workers had alerted their colleagues at IF Metall that both union leaders and workers were being affected by the epidemic and that the trade union movement was being weakened. Mmaphefo Mogoru, shop steward at the IT department of ABB in South Africa and a member of the country’s largest metalworkers union Numsa, says that SWHAP has made a huge difference.
“Most people in the factory are not well educated but the union is there to educate them about HIV and AIDS. SWHAP has made people more responsible and in control of their lives. Three years back people were scared to go and test and you would have a very low uptake. Now as they see that people are taken care of we have an uptake of 85 percent," Mmaphefo Mogory says.
The SWHAP model is built on cooperation between employees, union representatives and management and together they develop a policy for how to deal with HIV and related issues such as stigma and discrimination. Some staff are trained as peer educators that other employees can turn to for support and questions about HIV and other health related issues.
"Ever since we have been working with SWHAP people have become more aware and less judgemental and you find fewer cases of people being discriminated against. Before they would hide themselves but now they know that they can still continue to work," says Boitshepo Balozwi business and administrative coordinator at Scania Botswana.
The Swedish Workplace HIV and AIDS Programme (SWHAP) was jointly initiated in 2004 by the International Council of Swedish Industry (NIR) and the Industrial and Metal Workers’ Union of Sweden (IF Metall) in South Africa.
The programme is funded by Sida with initially 45 million SEK during three years (2009-2012).
In 2011 SWHAP reached 103 Swedish-related workplaces and a total of 19,500 employees participated in the programme.
Companies that participate in SWHAP have an average uptake for counselling and testing of over 70 per cent, which is way higher than the national averages in the participating countries.