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Companies lead the war against HIV/AIDS

Malawian companies are fighting the scourge at the workplace by providing antiretroviral drugs to HIV-positive employees and their dependants, while pursuing non-discriminatory policies.
Charles Banda

39-year-old Charles Masiye (not real name) is HIV positive. Unlike other HIV positive persons in Malawi, who spend all the time brooding with worry for being HIV-positive. Masiye lives a normal life.

"I have no time to worry about my HIV sero-status. I am more concerned with my work and looking after my family than anything else," says Masiye, who works as a technician for the Electricity Supply Commission of Malawi (ESCOM).

Masiye says he was diagnosed HIV positive last year at Malawi AIDS Counselling Resource Organisation (MACRO) in the commercial city of Blantyre. "After suffering from a spate of tuberculosis, shingles and abdominal complications, I decided to go for an HIV test and I was diagnosed positive," reveals Masiye.

He said that for a week he condemned himself and believed that he would die soon. His life of hopelessness however ended when he confided in the welfare of his company - ESCOM- about his sero-status.

ESCOM welfare services controller Twaibu Lawe advised him to fill forms which enabled him to be on a special medical aid scheme. According to Lawe ESCOM HIV Policy means that the company had to buy Masiye life- prolonging drugs so that he could continue being productive.

"It is pleasing that Masiye is delivering and he is more productive just like any other employee of the company, which almost make profits every year," says Lawe. Lawe says ESCOM comprises companies in Malawi, which formed a body called the Malawi Business Coalition Against HIV/AIDS (MBCA). This is a body, which coordinates all private sector efforts against the pandemic.

Malawi Chambers of Commerce and Industry chief executive Chancellor Kaferapanjira said the coalition acts as a focal point for the private sector strategies against HIV/AIDS.

He said that most companies in Malawi have realised the importance of having HIV policies, which among other things stipulates that companies should civic-educate their employees on the dangers and preventative measures of the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

"Malawi Business Coalition Against HIV/AIDS has also persuaded companies to provide anti-retroviral to their members of staff, who are diagnosed HIV positive," said Kaferapanjira.

He said that the Malawi Chamber of Commerce and the Malawi Business Coalition against HIV/AIDS is holding workshops with chief executives of companies to review the progress they are making in the implementation of HIV/AIDS Policies at their workplaces.

Kaferapanjira observed that because of the strides they have made so far, the World Health Organisation, through the World Bank has already pumped US$67, 000 into the coalition to be used for setting up a secretariat.

He said that apart from such funding, companies are expected to develop AIDS awareness programmes and apply for the HIV/AIDS Global Fund to the Malawi National AIDS Commission, which they will use to execute the planned programmes.

Business executives have expressed concern that the pandemic is affecting productivity as a lot of time and money is wasted on absenteeism, fuel, medical and funeral expenses.

To melt the effects the pandemic is having on businesses and the economy as a whole companies like ESCOM, Press Corporation, Southern Bottlers Limited, Illovo Sugar Company, National Bank of Malawi and others are running awareness campaigns within their premises and in some cases offer anti-retroviral drugs to keep their infected employees productive.

While companies have formed a coalition against HIV/AIDS, Malawi government has drafted a policy, which employers both in the private and public sector should implement as they fight against the pandemic. Employers however feel that the draft policy need close scrutiny.

The Employers Consultative Association of Malawi (ECAM) says there is a need for employers in the country to review the Draft Malawi Policy on HIV/AIDS in the workplace carefully in order to safeguard their interests.

Speaking at a recent consultative workshop on the proposed draft policy, ECAM president, Humphrey Mvula, pointed out that when the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS in the workplace is going on smoothly in Malawi, the interests of employers ought to be safeguarded and that the resultant policy should not disadvantage them.

"Employer organisations worldwide are increasingly involved in this fight against HIV/AIDS. This is the more reason why ECAM is also actively involved in the fight, and hence the involvement in the review of the Draft Malawi Policy on HIV/AIDS in the workplace to ensure that employers' interests are safeguarded and that the resultant policy does not disadvantage them," said Mvula.

He observed that HIV related illnesses 'are affecting the balance sheets' of most companies in many ways, explaining that on the expenditure side, "costs are increasing in geometrical proportions and these costs are bound to increase in terms of medical costs, hiring and training costs not withstanding other worker benefits."

Mvula, who is also chief executive for Malawi's largest coach company, Shire Bus Lines Limited, said that in the wake of HIV/AIDS, the employer is further disadvantaged by the fact that some of the earlier conditions of service that have been carried over by most companies offer a broad base expenditure coverage, which reflect the communal nature of the Malawian society.

"On the revenue generation front, continuous absenteeism of those suffering from HIV/AIDS, attending to the sick and funerals, fatigue of those infected by the virus negatively impact on the businesses and lower productivity of newly hired employees affect production and hence contribute to reduced profits," explained Mvula.

He told the workshop held in Blantyre in July that financial estimates obtained from some sampled companies indicated that a lot of profits have been lost through HIV related absenteeism.

Besides the direct costs incurred by various companies and organisations, according to Mvula, there are other indirect costs that arise from the HIV/AIDS infection.

"Just the fear of HIV/AIDS infected fellow workers and poor morale associated with company policies that prevent staff from attending to all issues relating to HIV/AIDS is in itself traumatic enough to affect productivity," he said.

Mvula disclosed that companies are finding it extremely difficult to cope with the pandemic both socially and economically. He however hinted that ECAM is committed to the establishment of a sustainable policy on HIV/AIDS at the workplace and its willingness to establish on going HIV/AIDS prevention programmes by among other things encouraging non-discriminatory policies at the workplace.

"From our membership perspective, there is no pre-employment HIV testing. Medical confidentiality of records is recognized and maintained, death benefits have remained," said Mvula adding that this has resulted in companies to pay higher premiums at pension providers.

He further said that terminating policies do not distinguish between HIV related illness and other disabling illnesses that attract medically based retirement. The ECAM President however cautioned that employers would not forever sustain such costs if some reasonable compromise would not be attained with all stakeholders. He said that some traditional values must be unbundled in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

He said the employers mourn about the lack of cooperation from other stakeholders in dealing with HIV/AIDS as a social problem affecting all Malawians. The employers would like reciprocal cooperation and understanding from employees, unions and the society at large.

According to Mvula, employers in the country firmly believe that the successful implementation of the proposed draft policy at the workplace lies in the sharing of costs by all stakeholders.

"As employers body, we would look towards government facilitating the establishment of social security policies that would allow equal contributions by the employee and the employers," he said.

Malawi Congress of Trade Union President, Ken William Mhango, supports Mvula's views. Mhango observes that while some companies are committed to the fight against HIV/AIDS, employees and their family members should also understand the financial limitations of other companies.

"With our extended families, we should understand that some companies do not have enough financial muscles, to provide anti-AIDS medication to spouses, relatives, children and a chain of grand children who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS," says Mhango.

He said that people should appreciate that a number of companies and employers have shown great interest in supporting HIV/AIDS.

With many companies implementing HIV/AIDS policies, it is obvious that HIV positive employees like Masiye, will contribute positively to their companies and general development of the country, while living normal lives.

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