The FGTB and its partners tackle AIDS in Africa

November 2014: The national coordinators from French-speaking countries at the end of a week-long SETCA training course, together with the president of SETCA, Erwin De Deyn, Dominique Borgers (SETCA project coordinator) Yolanda Lamas (FGTB employee) and Zakari Koudougou (UNI Africa regional secretary).

The Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique (FGTB) is taking on the fight against HIV/AIDS at home and abroad. The various ways of tackling the pandemic are primarily aimed at helping people living with HIV/AIDS to carry on working and ensuring they have access to the appropriate antiretroviral treatment. In so doing, the union is taking on one of the great challenges facing the world. Skilled workers are disappearing, and the decimation of the active population in certain countries is hampering their socio-economic development. In the face of such difficulties, trade unions have a duty to help the workers and one another. Ensuring equitable access to quality HIV services is essential, from both a human rights and a public health perspective. The FGTB is also prioritising prevention and the fight against all forms of discrimination.

Workers in certain sectors (road transport, sea transport, construction, etc.) and certain regions of the world, such as Southern Africa, are more exposed to others and are significant in terms of the spread of HIV. The sector-level unions affiliated to the FGTB are aware of the problems linked to the various occupations and are able to adapt programmes to their needs.

The Centrale Générale FGTB (CG), representing workers in the construction, cleaning and hairdressing sectors, FGTB HORVAL, representing food sector workers, the hospitality trade union HORECA, the Flemish metalworkers’ union affiliated to the FGTB BVV Metaal, the service sector union SETCA FGTB, and the FGTB transport union UBT, have, since the nineties, been tackling the issue of HIV/AIDS in the world of work: screening, treatments available, social protection, the fight against discrimination, unfair dismissals, etc.

Thanks to its affiliates, the FGTB has developed a range of tools and instruments, such as collective bargaining, social dialogue and trade union education, to combat HIV/AIDS and the discrimination suffered by workers. Furthermore, its base within companies means it is strategically placed to play an active role on the ground. In addition to the ILO’s work on HIV/AIDS and the workplace, trade unions have also led discussions on HIV/AIDS as well as organising awareness-raising and screening campaigns. They have provided education and training and have negotiated company CBAs that include specific clauses to protect workers living with HIV/AIDS. They have also managed to secure the introduction of HIV/AIDS policies within factories, businesses, public services, etc.

Some have tired of the fight against HIV/AIDS, thinking that everyone now knows how to avoid it, how to treat it and that no one now dies of it. No one should die of it... There can be no respite in this battle. As soon as the awareness raising campaigns dwindle, the rate of new HIV infections increases, in Europe and Africa alike. Even in South Africa, one of the countries with the highest HIV prevalence rates and where the rate of new infections remains high, the "in" subject is the fight against tuberculosis. And yet, is tuberculosis not the main opportunistic infection from which people with HIV die? It is for this reason that the fight today is focussed on screening: encouraging workers to have the test, helping them to overcome their fears and, above all, giving them subsequent support if the test is positive.

It has only been six years since South Africa fully acknowledged the gravity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country. In 2009, President Jacob Zuma acknowledged that it was one of the most important challenges facing South Africa. He insisted that all South Africans should know their HIV status and the treatment options available to them. The country launched the world’s largest antiretroviral treatment programme, providing free, universal access. President Zuma’s comment that he had showered after having sexual relations to minimise the risk of contracting HIV was, nonetheless, deplorable and undermined years of awareness raising.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, just three countries – South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda – account for 45% of all new HIV infections. The number of people with access to HIV treatment is growing every day: 13 million at global level at the end of 2013. And antiretroviral treatment has become simpler: just one pill a day. Based on the recent scale-up, UNAIDS estimated that almost 14 million were on life-saving HIV treatment by July 2014.
South Africa is waging the battle against HIV/AIDS on all fronts, but what of a country like DR Congo, which has little treatment cover and no fall in the rate of new HIV infections?

What responses does the FGTB offer?

The FGTB’s affiliates are developing all kinds of trade union cooperation projects with partners from the South. The FGTB’s international trade union training institute, IFSI, is managing, for the FGTB as a whole, projects in South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, etc., as part of a programme co-financed by the Belgian development cooperation agency. Some projects are fully or partly devoted to HIV/AIDS.

The Centrale Générale (CG) gave support to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) with a project, spanning over several years, to train HIV/AIDS peer educators. Once trained, the peer educators raised awareness among construction workers on their building sites during their lunch breaks, distributing the leaflets produced as part of the project, condoms, etc. The NUM completely took over these activities in 2012 and contributes to organising a mass event held in a different region every year for World Aids Day on 1 December.

The CG is currently supporting two aspects of the Worker Health Programme of the Southern African Clothing & Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU): assistance to workers with HIV/AIDS and HIV/AIDS training for trade union representatives. Unemployed women from the textile sector also received training under this project. Many textile factories, unable to compete with cheap textile imports from China or Bangladesh, have closed down. The women trained have become care workers, providing assistance to colleagues with AIDS. The health programme is available to union members and their families. The second aspect of the project covers education and training on HIV/AIDS and the most common opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis. These courses complement the overall training received by trade union representatives to support their trade union work. SACTWU has included the fight against HIV/AIDS in a wellness programme that also provides educational courses on healthy eating, for example.

Trade union projects dealing with HIV/AIDS are increasingly going beyond the sphere of the workplace and reaching out into the community, as is the case with this SACTWU-CG project.

The SETCA has been running an “AIDS” project since the nineties in various English-speaking countries of Africa, currently covering South Africa, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and, since 2014, five French-speaking countries, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, DR Congo and Senegal. This project, in which around a dozen service trade unions affiliated to UNI Africa are taking part, is aimed at combating the discrimination suffered by workers living with HIV/AIDS. Although prevention and information are helping to reduce the rate of infection around the world, one person is still being infected with HIV every 14 seconds. That represents 6,000 new HIV infections every day. Young people aged under 25 account for 40% of all new infections. In Sub-Saharan Africa, almost 70% of young people do not know how protect themselves from HIV/AIDS.

The project supported by SETCA invites decision-makers, employers and trade unions to join forces to fight this illness together. The aim is, through handbooks and training, to equip trade unions with the tools needed to address the discrimination suffered by workers living with HIV/AIDS on the ground. Around 13,000 company visits took place during phase one of the project in the English-speaking countries.

Since 2012, SETCA has been providing workers and trade union representatives with information to fight against the various forms of discrimination in the workplace. These tools have been developed in partnership with SENSOA [1] and the AIDS prevention platform Plateforme Prévention SIDA. All the materials are available on the FGTB websites. The project is working to secure agreements with multinationals whereby an agreement obtained in one country is valid in all the rest!
The advantages the various trade union partners and SETCA have been able to draw from working in several countries include the inter-union network, which regularly exchanges information about HIV/AIDS in the workplace.

With support from HORVAL, the Hotel, Food Processing and Catering Workers’ Union (HFPCWU) in Malawi has managed to organise more companies and give more training to trade union representatives not only on workers’ rights but also on HIV/AIDS, a key issue given Malawi’s record levels of new HIV infections and people suffering with HIV/AIDS.

The Flemish metalworkers’ union ABVV Metaal and the transport union BTB are both working with Kenyan partners on two projects contributing, among other things, to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. In the metal sector, the Kenyan Engineering Workers’ Union (KEWU) is taking the traditional approach, negotiating clauses to protect workers, raising workers’ consciousness about how to protect themselves from infection and encouraging them to know their HIV status.

The Kenyan Dock Workers’ Union (DWU) and the Kenyan Long Distance Truck Drivers’ Union (KLDTDU), supported by the International Transport Federation (ITF Africa), want to go a step further. They want to break the taboo. In Kenya, as in many other countries, and not only African, HIV/AIDS is not talked about. Are people afraid? It is considered to be a “shameful” illness often linked to sexual relations. To combat this stigma, storytelling is used to encourage workers to talk about the impact of HIV/AIDS on their lives. In South Africa, the new trend is also to encourage people to speak openly about living, in many cases normal lives, with HIV/AIDS. The aim is to explain that people can live a normal life with HIV if it is detected in time and the treatment is followed. In the Kenyan transport sector where HIV prevalence is very high, the project has set up roadside evening clinics, at truck stops, for drivers and sex workers, who are also heavily exposed to HIV. The trade unions are being assisted by the International Centre for Reproductive Health (ICRH), founded by Marleen Temmerman (professor at the University of Ghent, former Socialist Party senator, and very committed to the fight against AIDS in Kenya).


The FGTB’s trade union cooperation programme, in addition to the work conducted with partner organisations in the South, such as the HIV/AIDS projects outlined above, is also committed to raising awareness among workers in Belgium, by mobilising their trade union representatives. When partner unions are visiting Belgium, the various FGTB affiliates take the opportunity to hold events, conferences, debates, testimonials, etc., with trade union representatives.

The FGTB supports UNAIDS’ vision: “Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths.” For the FGTB, it is clear that the fight against HIV/AIDS forms an integral part of the wider trade union fight for decent work, which includes the principles of health and safety at work, social protection and respect for human and trade union rights.

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