Unions slam lack of assistance for HIV-positive workers

Zimbabwe's trade unions have attributed the rising incidence of HIV infection among workers to a lack of effective workplace management programmes targeting the labour force.

Nathan Banda, who heads the health and safety project of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), said a new national report on the pandemic clearly pointed to an urgent need for more funding to support proper care and treatment programmes for workers.

The report, released by the National AIDS Council (NAC) this week, noted the absence of coordinated strategies to help those infected and affected by the disease.

Among the concerns raised was that inadequate retirement and retrenchment packages often meant workers were unable to afford private healthcare services once they had left their jobs, while small business operators and informal sector workers were frequently excluded from government HIV/AIDS care and prevention programmes.

"The situation of workers in this country is much worse today than it was a year ago. ZCTU has very ambitious plans - like counselling and support centres in many workplaces - but we cannot get these to work because the government has continually denied us money from the NAC coffers, although we are major contributors through the three percent AIDS tax levied on all workers," Banda told IRIN.

In 1999 Zimbabwe imposed a tax on earnings to help pay for AIDS-related healthcare costs. At the time, the measure was expected to bring in about US $26.6 million annually.

Research undertaken by ZCTU in June 2004 showed that one out of every four workers was HIV positive, but Banda warned that this figure only reflected HIV prevalence amongst workers in urban areas. The umbrella labour body has an estimated membership of 300,000 drawn from 34 affiliate unions.

Dr Owen Mugorongi, a senior official in charge of HIV/AIDS and TB programmes in the ministry of health and child welfare, conceded that the findings covered in the national report had been overtaken by developments since the research had been completed.

"We would like to fund every little programme that takes us a step forward in the fight against HIV/AIDS at a national level. But we are facing serious financial problems, and programmes simply cannot take off. We will certainly consider some of the recommendations from the conference report when we meet to review the national response to the HIV/AIDS crisis," he told IRIN.

Mugorongi stressed that existing national HIV/AIDS care and prevention strategies were severely underfunded and could not cope with the number of orphans and needy families who had lost parents and breadwinners to the epidemic.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that Zimbabwe has an orphan population of around 1.3 million, which is set to rise, placing an increasingly heavy burden on already overstretched social and health services.

"Today, Zimbabwe suffers from one of the world's highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection, together with a plummeting life expectancy and a catastrophe in orphan care. Combined, this has led to marked deterioration in all social sectors, impacting greatly on children. The problems facing children in Zimbabwe are immense, including shortfalls in nutrition, girls' vulnerability, access to education and the problem of street kids," the UN children's agency said in a recent report.

ZCTU has already started applying to international donor organisations for direct funding for HIV/AIDS workplace programmes. The unions need at least US $1.5 million to set up and sustain drop-in assistance centres in workplaces over the next three years.