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Feature - Business responds to AIDS challenge
Thursday 13 January 2005
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SWAZILAND: Feature - Business responds to AIDS challenge

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]


Responsible business leaders are looking to safeguard the health of their workers

MBABANE, 3 September (PLUSNEWS) - Alarmed by the impact of AIDS on the workforce, Swaziland's business community is taking the lead in providing health programmes to safeguard workers and management.

"Businesses are understanding that it can't be left to government to find a solution," Musa Hlope, former executive director of the Federation of Swaziland Employers (FSE) told PlusNews.

By studying how individual firms are promoting the AIDS awareness message, and managing solutions, Swazi businesses have become proactive, after initially appearing to be overwhelmed by the pandemic.

"2003 is the year of AIDS, when companies really awakened to the danger they face. There have been too many deaths among our employees. The financial toll has been terrible," Phindile Weatherson, human resource manager for Standard Bank Swaziland explained.

The financial loss to businesses includes downtime due to absenteeism, loss of training investment when skilled workers and managers die, medical payments and death benefits. But the psychological damage and lowering of morale has also been acute.

"Most businesses are like families, particularly in a small country like Swaziland. Workers react a bit like a relative passed away when a colleague dies. If you multiply that by the number of premature deaths brought on by AIDS, there is just a pervading gloom and despair that takes over," Weatherson said.

Different sectors of the economy have not responded uniformly to the crisis. Swaziland has an agriculture-based economy, and agribusinesses have led the way with anti-AIDS efforts.

"Agriculture has been hard hit. HIV prevalence rates are close to, or higher than, the national 38.6 percent HIV-infection rate among all adults," said Hlope, who left his FSE post last month to become a corporate consultant specialising in AIDS in the workplace.

"The Ministry of Agriculture did a survey to determine the extent of the problem, and owners of agribusinesses have had their eyes opened. They've initiated some innovative programmes," Hlope noted.

Themba Dlamini, managing director of the conglomerate Tibiyo TakaNgwane, told PlusNews: "We are major shareholders in two large sugar plantations. It's not just the cane cutters who are HIV-positive; a lot of management and skilled workers are infected. It's our most serious problem."

One large sugar processing company, Simunye Sugar, in the eastern lowveld of Swaziland, is leagues ahead of the government's health care system in the treatment of AIDS. Not only HIV-infected workers, but also their spouses and children are provided with antiretrovirals and other drugs.

"We're trying to get another of our sugar estates, Lubombo Sugar, to do the same," said Dlamini. His corporation owns shares in virtually all large Swaziland business operations, and AIDS programmes that have proved effective will be introduced at other firms.

"When the World Health Organisation succeeded in lowering drug prices, that helped us a lot," said Hlope. "More and more, companies are offering free treatment to workers, and this is welcome news."

At Standard Bank, Weatherson runs retreats, workshops and in-house AIDS awareness sessions for about 200 employees. She contracted a local writer to do "a funny and sexy" fiction story to motivate a change in sexual behaviour. Called "Plain Speaking", the often-raucous tale of bank employees awakening to the health dangers they face is an unusual pamphlet to find at a conservative financial institution.

"We've tried everything else, and scaring people with AIDS statistics hasn't worked, so why not humour and plain speaking?" Weatherson said.

The country's manufacturing sector, which is largely comprised of garment makers, has been slower to adopt a pro-active AIDS policy. "We lose workers to AIDS, but they can be replaced," Desmond Tan, logistics control supervisor for Tuntex Textile Company told PlusNews.

Tan's company counts on Swaziland's 40 percent unemployment rate to furnish new workers. "Not much skill is required to do fitting work. We hire women, and they usually know how to operate a sewing machine already. There are many women at the gate who want jobs," he said.

AIDS activist Pholile Dlamini condemned the assumption. "Even with high unemployment, the pool of available labour is not limitless. In industry, we believe that up to half of workers are HIV-positive. Companies have to look out for the health of their workforce," she said.

At the Matsapha Industrial Estate, 30 km east of the capital Mbabane, where most of the country's manufacturing is located, women from both rural and urban areas come to seek work. Many have lost husbands to AIDS, and may be infected themselves. The loss of the family breadwinner compels them to find jobs, while those who are desperate engage in prostitution if work cannot be found, Hlope said.

"Women can sell themselves for a meal, and these are the ones who may be hired next month at a garment factory," he pointed out.

The FSE is challenging industries to develop AIDS programmes. Technical assistance and even funding is available from a government body, the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA). Former finance minister Derrek von Wissel heads NERCHA, and he speaks the language of business.

"The bottom line is that AIDS is an economic issue, and not just a health issue. There are no businesses without workers. Whether we like it or not, we have to concern ourselves with the personal lives of employees and management, and provide information, testing, counselling, medical assistance and moral support," he told PlusNews.


Recent SWAZILAND Reports
Prominent traditional leader condemns AIDS drugs,  30/Dec/04
Army unveils HIV/AIDS policy,  24/Dec/04
Swazis strengthen efforts to fight HIV/AIDS stigma,  19/Nov/04
Construction declines as impact of HIV/AIDS builds up,  5/Nov/04
Men urged to take more responsibility in curbing HIV/AIDS,  7/Oct/04
Le portail d'informations générales de la Côte d’Ivoire
The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria

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