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HIV/AIDS and the World of Work - An ILO Code of Practice

Anyone who has seen the movie Philadephia would remember the famous line from it “Justice is blind regardless of colour, sex and religion”, delivered by the Judge in the movie when the case of Andrew Becket was produced before him. It is one of the most excellent movies ever made and demonstrates not only the cold blooded and hypocritical attitudes of the corporate world, but also the indignities and prejudices that people living with HIV/AIDS have to go through. It is a story about a well educated and hard working lawyer named Andrew Becket who contracts HIV and is then illegally and through prejudice is fired from his law firm when his colleagues find out that he has AIDS.

Becket sues the firm for dismissal, lost earnings and punitive damages with the help of Joe Miller, a lawyer who himself has prejudices against people with HIV/AIDS but changes his total attitude after associating with Becket. This movie which won many Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor was also a tool to educate people about misconceptions on HIV/AIDS.

ILO Code of Practice

Even though the story in the movie was fictional it was based on many true incidents that many people around the world faced following being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. This was that prompted the International Labour Office in Geneva to come out with the “An ILO code of practice on HIV/AIDS and the world of work”. This is an extremely important document because it is the first international instrument on HIV/AIDS specifically related to the world of work. One of its underlying principles is the recognition of HIV/AIDS as a workplace issue. This is because workers account for three quarters of adults living with HIV in the world, and also because of the role which falls to the partners in the world of work in the global effort to counteract the spread of the epidemic and its effects.


The Code provides guidelines for policy development at national, sector and enterprise levels and for the creation of workplace programs. It covers prevention of HIV/AIDS, mitigation of its impact, care and support of workers infected and affected by the virus, and elimination of stigma and discrimination on the basis of real or perceived HIV status. The Code applies to all employers and workers including applicants for work in the public and private sectors, and all aspects of work, formal and informal.

Adherence to the principles contained in the Code is voluntary and, unlike International Labour Conventions, does not carry legal obligations. It is therefore a flexible instrument which can be adapted to suit the characteristics of a particular country or workplace, including the needs of both high prevalence countries, where care and treatment are increasingly important issues, and countries sush as Sri Lanka where the main need is for prevention.

True situation

In Sri Lanka, by mid 2006, 749 cases of HIV infections have been officially reported. However, the true situation may be more as there is underreporting due to high discrimination and social stigma. Most of the HIV inflected persons were in the 30-39 age-group, which is the most productive segment of the population. Professionals, busine ssmen, hotel employees, drivers, teachers, artists and service personnel are among those infected. Even though, Sri Lanka is classified as a low HIV prevalence country in South Asia region, it also exhibits a number of high risk factors such as low condom use, a thriving commercial sex industry, external and internal migration, tourism, beach boys, men who have sex with men and increasing numbers of people having unprotected sex with different partners.

Three year project

Therefore The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Ministry of labour Relations and Foreign Employment in Sri Lanka launched a three-year project in 2004 aimed at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS among workers through workplace policies and programs, capacity building, conducting awareness campaigns and reducing the level of employment-related discrimination against persons living with HIV/AIDS. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a sustainable national program on HIV/AIDS and the world of work.

The project, International HIV/AIDS Workplace Education Program is funded by the United States Department of Labour (USDOL) and is executed by the ILO. It will build alliances with the government, trade unions and employers’ organisations such as the Employers Federation of Ceylon and The Chamber of Commerce to reduce adverse consequences on social, labour and economic development, through a coordinated strategy. The strategy will be built upon the ILO’s comparative advantage in advocacy and policy development, particularly drawing on its Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work.

The strategies

Speaking on the strategies, Dr. Dayanath Ranathunga, Program Officer training at the ILO said that the tripartite program aims at “Behaviour change through Communication”. The three partners are the government, the Employer and the Employee. The ILO has set up an advisory board for the program comprising members from The Ministry of Labour, Trade Unions, Employers Representatives and The STD/AIDS Control Program.

“Since there are other funded programs in the country concentrating on different sectors this program mainly focuses on The Tourism Sector, The Plantation Sector and The Manufacturing Sector”. At present we have an ongoing pilot project in 14 different workplaces within these three sectors”, says Dr. Ranathunga.

The program first targets behaviour assessment through qualitative and quantitative methods that also includes a site inventory. This is done through questionnaires, focus group discussions, key informant interviews and in-depth interviews.
“Following such an assessment we classify the existing behaviour patterns and communicate to them the expected behaviours through a communication strategy”, said Dr. Ranathunga. “This is done mainly through a focal point coordinator. We identify the natural leaders in a workplace and give them the task. They in turn select a committee that act as peer educators in the workplace”, he said.

The responsibility of the committee in the workplace involves implementing prevention programs, giving care and support to workplace colleagues by creating a link between heath care programs and other areas.

“I am proud to say that following the launch of this program and up to now five corporate giants have come up with their own HIV/AIDS workplace policies”, says Dr. Ranathunga.

“We are also training master trainers in every sector to make this program sustainable after the end of this particular project”, Dr. Ranathunga further explained.

Up to now there have been no cases in Sri Lanka similar to the Andrew Becket case where an employee has sued or gone to courts against an employer. The inferences drawn from this can be either that there have been no cases of such discrimination or due to the fact that a person would have to come forward with his HIV status if he has to file a case. Given the fact that Sri Lanka is low prevalence at present the most likely would be the first possibility.

Therefore the ongoing ILO program is necessary to educate, inform and to make behavioral and attitudinal changes in people to primarily be prevented from contracting HIV and secondarily to enable to deal with issues surrounding the condition if it involves either oneself or a colleague at the workplace.


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Sri Lanka

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Produced by Lake House Copyright 2006 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.

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