End the prejudice
Despite more than 20 years ago of education discrimination against HIV sufferers is still rife in the workplace, writes Claire Mackay
MORE than 60,000 people are living with HIV in the UK, and 7,000 more are diagnosed each year. Unfortunately, some of these people also have to live with discrimination in their workplace. With around 40m people in the world now with HIV, one of the main aims of World AIDS Day, on December 1, is to tackle the ignorance and prejudice that not only surround the condition – but that also contribute to the spread of what is a preventable disease.
Alec Deary works at the Fife Men Project in Kirkcaldy, which promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender health and wellbeing, and is also a local Unison activist.
He has been involved in a number of workplace discrimination cases, first through negotiation – and then through training and education. “At first I could hardly believe one situation, where an individual’s workmates were refusing to use their keyboard in case they ‘caught something’,” says Deary. “But then I realised many younger people have not seen the advertising campaigns of the 1980s, and there is still a big problem with ignorance surrounding HIV and AIDS.
“We approached this through training and development, treating it both as a health and safety issue and also as a diversity issue. It was all very informal and non-threatening, and education was the key.
“We can also be involved in making sure there is provision and back-up in workplaces for those people undergoing combination therapy for HIV. Sometimes side effects can be unpleasant, sometimes an individual may just need to sit quietly for 20 minutes.
“It’s important to negotiate this as you would concerning anyone with a serious illness, while also looking at education and awareness surrounding the other issues, such as stigmatisation.
“This kind of situation is becoming more common, as a result of the longevity that now accompanies HIV, with deterioration in the condition not happening for around 25 years.
“Generally, in all these cases, the response is a positive one. Employers are usually keen for difficulties to be resolved, as for them it’s also about retention of staff. In our experience, poeple with long-term illness want to continue working, and with the right information and support, they can manage their illness appropriately.
“In this, and in cases of discrimination, we want to be part of the solution, through negotiation and policy development with employers.”
Last December, the Disability Discrimination Act was extended to protect people with HIV, along with some other diseases, from discrimination from the day of diagnosis.
It doesn’t mean people with HIV or AIDS should consider themselves disabled – and they don’t have to tell their employer they have HIV (unless legally obliged, such as people who work with blood).
But it does mean it is against the l aw to discriminate against someone, through recruitment or at work, because of HIV status.
The way forward, says Unison, is through discussion and negotiation, developing policies in partnership with employers – and training and development of staff.
“More and more people are living longer with HIV, and treatments are increasingly successful,” says John Keggie, Unison Scottish Organiser, and Scottish health and safety committee secretary.
“This means that employers should be carrying out their duties and responsibilities even more seriously. They should be making reasonable adjustments to workplaces and to conditions, where required, ensuring staff are properly trained and establishing policies and practices that are f a i r and nondiscriminatory.
“People with HIV have enough to deal with, without having to cope with any consequent discrimination.”