Worrying HIV levels among civil servants

HIV prevalence among public servants in Uganda is 16.3 percent, more than twice the national average, according to a recently released assessment of the epidemic among the country's various sectors.

Some 10.3 percent of hotel and restaurant workers and 9.8 percent of sales officials in Uganda are living with HIV, according to the study by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. Some 8.6 percent of dealers in real estate, 7.4 percent of workers in manufacturing and 7.1 percent of fishing communities are HIV-positive.

"These people [civil servants] are always in workshops, where they meet and interact with many people. They have little time to spend with their families. This gives them enough time to have 'side dishes' [extra-marital relationships]," said Samuel Lyomoki, a member of parliament representing workers, told IRIN. "They are involved in reckless behaviours. There is a need to sensitize and take services like counselling and voluntary testing to them."

With the exception of a few male-dominated sectors like construction and transport, HIV prevalence is higher among female workers (7.3 percent) than it is among male workers (5.2 percent).

The study found that long work hours, high mobility, posts that separate spouses, and sexual exploitation were the major drivers of the epidemic among workers across Uganda’s different economic sectors. Other risk factors include disposable income among workers - which could drive some towards risky social and sexual behaviour - as well as sexual exploitation, abuse, rape and exchanging sexual favours for promotions or improved working conditions.

Economic impact

"The epidemic is a threat to effective and efficient delivery of services in both the public and private sectors. It undermines the ability of the private and public institutions to attain the goals of national development," Sulaiman Madada, Uganda's acting Minister for Gender, Labour and Social Development, told IRIN. "We urge all ministries and organizations to implement the national policy on HIV/AIDS and… their workplaces to mitigate the social [and] economic impact of the virus."

Uganda spends at least 1.7 percent of its total wage bill educating and training new workers to replace those who die of HIV-related causes, according to government statistics. The negative impact of HIV on Uganda's workplaces is seen in poor performance due to illness, absenteeism due to stigma, loss of skilled labour and increased healthcare expenditure.

''They have little time to spend with their families. This gives them enough time to have 'side dishes'''

"The virus is causing us to lose very important and valued civil servants like medical officers, engineers, accountants and teachers," Jacob Geoffrey Ettedu, the principal assistant secretary for finance and administration in the Ministry of Public Service, told IRIN/PlusNews. "Imagine after recruiting an officer, you train, he or she gains knowledge, skill and experience, and suddenly he or she dies of HIV. Replacement of such a person is quite a sizeable cost."

Policy implementation

"There is need to strengthen the institutional capacity of ministries and organizations to respond to HIV at their workplaces. We urge the ministries and private sector organizations to implement the HIV work policy to fight HIV," Harriet Luyima, director of labour at the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, said. "The HIV work policy would help mitigate the virus. It [calls] for provision of treatment, care and support to workers infected and affected by HIV."

In 2007, the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development launched the National Policy on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work, which forms the basis for the development of workplace policy guidelines; it applies to both private and public sector workers. In May, the East African Community launched an HIV/AIDS Workplace Policy that aims to address government discrimination against its employees living with HIV, ensure access to life-prolonging antiretroviral treatment and enable HIV-positive people to achieve their potential.

Despite the existence of these policies, Madada noted that many workers in Uganda continue to face discrimination based on their HIV status, discouraging testing and treatment.

"This must stop. People should not be denied promotion, training, and access to medical and sickness benefits. Why should some people be forced to test for HIV and the results are communicated to others without regard to their right to confidentiality?" he said at a recent breakfast meeting with different HIV stakeholders in the capital, Kampala. "The judiciary should help save HIV infected workers [from] this segregation. The anti-discrimination laws and policies will achieve little unless strenuously enforced in court."

On 2 October, Madada signed an instrument appointing occupational safety and health inspectors to prevent workers’ exposure to the virus.

"The inspectors will help us asses the working conditions and the implementation of responses to mitigate the social-economic impact of HIV/AIDS at the workplace," he said.

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