The government has teamed up with Ethiopia' s main employees' and employers' associations to launch a new HIV/AIDS workplace policy that is to be implemented across the nation.
The new policy came into force in January 2012 and will be applied across the board in state and private organizations. It is expected to protect job seekers from mandatory HIV tests, while facilitating voluntary counselling and testing and defending the right of employees living with HIV to medical leave or job re-allocation. It also provides guidelines for the establishment of an AIDS fund to help employees cope with living with the virus.
The new policy is in line with the country's goal of halving new HIV infections by 2015. "Where HIV/AIDS hurts the country most is in workplaces, where the productive part of the society -alongside their employers, family and the rest of their community - suffer finically, economically and socially in aftershocks of every new HIV infection," said Solomon Demissie, director of the Harmonious Industrial Relation Directorate at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.
"This is why combating HIV in workplaces holds a big stake in our fight. The sector needs a combined and revitalized effort from all concerned actors."
According to a 2009 study, "Managing HIV and AIDS in the workplace" by the NGO, Stop AIDS Now, most NGOs admitted that they did not have the skills to develop an HIV/AIDS workplace policy.
"NGOs do not have concrete knowledge of the costs of developing and implementing a workplace policy, and most respondents worry that all activities for responding to HIV in the workplace have financial implications by increasing overhead costs. Furthermore, they are not sure of the sustainability of such undertakings," the report noted.
Solomon said the ministry had met with all stakeholders to ensure they were on the same page. "Since this a set of new commitments that will demand considerable efforts, including financial obligations from everybody, we had to make sure all are comfortable with it. After a series of discussions, the policy document was endorsed by all actors unanimously."
The new policy brings an agreement with the Ethiopian Employers Federation and The Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions, and is also endorsed by the Ethiopian Privatization and Public Enterprises Supervising Agency, which oversees 53 state organizations.
It stipulates that employers will make the necessary investments to ensure universal precautions in workplaces to protect employees from HIV infection, and are also expected to put in place a post-exposure prophylaxis system for their workforce.
Employers committed to making available personnel and funds to implement the policy in their businesses, and to facilitate employees' access to condoms and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.
"We have been actively working to fight HIV for more than a decade now. At times we were resisted by organizations, including state-run firms that were concerned by the financial ramifications of such commitments," said Tadele Yimer, president of the Ethiopian Employers Federation.
"We made significant progress convincing both investors and government employers to prioritize the HIV agenda and undertake a number of initiatives including... schemes to support marriages and people living with HIV," he added.
"What we hope it [the new policy] will do is bring about an agreed consent and uniform approach among employers to fight HIV/AIDS nationally."
The federation brings to the agreement a commitment by around 700 organizations across a broad range of sectors like transport, construction, hotels, airlines, banks, insurance and others, many with their own trade union.
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Officials at the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions - who developed their own workplace HIV policy in 2001 - expressed relief that employers are now on board. "Employees' deaths were on the rise. There was stigma and discrimination at times, forcing employees to leave their jobs... [putting] their families in difficult positions," said Fissehatsion Biyadgelinge, head of the confederation's social affairs department.
"Since the 2001 guideline, which was developed from the national policy with the support of international donors, including Pathfinder International, we have tried to reverse the trend by raising awareness through continued campaigns, and led various efforts to fight HIV/AIDS by encouraging voluntary counselling and testing and fighting for more rights for employees living with HIV/AIDS."
The umbrella organization of over 400 employees' unions and an estimated 400,000 members, says some of its anti-HIV/AIDS campaigns have been failing short because of funding constraints.
"With the new policy of establishing an AIDS fund, employees can contribute a small portion of money and from it we can finance HIV campaigns and cater for employees and families that are affected by HIV," Fissehatsion said.
The AIDS fund will raise a monthly contribution from employees and will also be run with assistance from the organizations' credit and saving associations. Money from the fund will be used for treatment, care and support programmes such as medical checkups and balanced diets, and other social assistance programmes for employees and their families.
"We cannot forever rely on donors," Fissehatsion said. "The ownership has to be ours - the employees."