The vast majority of AIDS patients are of working age, according to statistics from U.N. AIDS.
And so, as the working population changes, AIDS activists say the workplace also needs to adapt. Many organizations, including the U.N.’s labor agency, have called on businesses to create HIV-friendly policies for the workplace.
But how that will actually play out in the workplace varies widely from country to country.
Some nations, such as Australia, which has a low AIDS prevalence rate of about 0.2 percent, have proactive, federally funded workplace programs and progressive policies. Australians also enjoy national health care, which provides a safety net for employees.
Brent Allan, who is on the AIDS conference’s organizing committee and is based in Melbourne as the head of Living Positive Victoria, says he challenges all workplaces to set up HIV policies.
“This is a policy that caters to the well-being of their employees. If their employees are feeling good, if their employees are healthy, they’re going to be more productive,” Allan said.
In the United States, David Phillips, who works for the government-run National Institutes of Health, says he has had HIV his entire working life – since he was 17.
Phillips says he welcomes one recent development in U.S. policy, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which he says offers HIV patients the flexibility to change jobs without losing their HIV coverage under their private Insurance plan.
At the office, he offers simple advice to colleagues and bosses.
“I would say the big thing is to try to keep as much normalcy about the situation as possible. In this day and age, people living with HIV, we have pretty much a normal life expectancy,” Phillips said.
“Pretty much the first day I work with a new boss, I sit them down and I tell them about my HIV story and some other medical issues. It’s really to say, that ‘Hey, we can really perform well.’ It’s not like the old days where you were constantly popping out for doctor’s appointments because people were sick,” he added.
That does not mean, Phillips says, that HIV does not affect workers.
“For most people who’ve had HIV a long time, their bodies have been taxed by coping with the virus and the medications, that many people physically feel 10, 15, 20 years older than their chronological age. I’m very fortunate that at almost 50, I feel like I’m 25 most of the time, and the only thing that’s killing me right now are my feet from walking on these hard convention center floors,” he adds, laughing.
But in other nations, particularly within sub-Saharan Africa, which has the world’s highest AIDS rate of about 4.7 percent, working with AIDS is not always so easy.
AIDS patients, who are overwhelmingly female, often face discrimination. Many African governments provide free HIV medication – but patients often have to take time off work to queue for hours at government facilities.
In the southern African nation of Malawi, Safari Mbewe, the executive director of the Malawi Network of People Living with HIV, says AIDS support systems need to come into the workplace, with voluntary and confidential HIV support programs.
“If we could explore the possibility of having these facilities within the workplace. So each and every company, each and every organization should have a facility within their campus that should take care of their employees. So when an employee needs HIV testing, an employee needs ARVs, they don’t have to go elsewhere, because this is what is affecting the productivity as well,” Mbewe says.
“If it’s done, if everything is provided within the same workplace, it means all the employees would have adequate time to concentrate on their work,” he adds.
Mbewe says he’s heard countless tales of workers being fired for their HIV-positive status in Malawi.
Doesn’t disclose status
And so Mbewe, unlike Phillips, does not disclose his HIV status at work. That makes him a bit of an anomaly: in Southern Africa, it is common for workers to put their health status at the top of their resume.
“I think it’s not important. Because my belief is that the employers should be looking at one’s capability to do the job. So whether one is HIV positive or not, it doesn’t make any difference,” Mbewe said.
The conference has dedicated many hours to the discussion of workplace issues, debating issues of privacy, of policies and of workers’ rights across a spectrum of diverse labor laws and workplace cultures.
But throughout, the underlying message around the world is the same: people with HIV want to work.