"Before it is too late" (HIV/AIDS)

Guy Ryder (ITUC General Secretary): "HIV/AIDS is affecting working people everywhere, North, South, East and West. But Africa remains the continent which is by far the worst affected. In the small country of Lesotho, just two millions inhabitants, 25% of the adult population is HIV positive, and in the last five years, the country has lost the equivalent of 10% of its population just to the AIDS pandemic."

Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, has known a rapid industrialization in recent years. But, the HIV epidemic has been wiping out all the benefits of development, as thousands of workers have been infected. The teachers’ community of Lesotho is also gravely affected by the disease. The death of experienced teachers is seriously hampering the future of the country’s children.

Local unions, like the Lesotho Association of Teachers, have started initiating workplace programs to reverse the curves of infection. With the support of Education International, the union has developed an HIV/AIDS training program for its members and offers support to those few teachers living with HIV. Gabriel Ntueba, the HIV/AIDS coordinator at L.A.T. and Christian Bernard Ramonane a teacher at St James High School, are well aware of the problem. Bernard Ramonane is one of the few teachers, who has come out and disclosed his HIV status.

Interview of St James’ HIV positive teacher: “I’ve been away from school for a long time. And the parents started complaining about me. They know I am one of the hard working teachers of the school. They were surprised of why I was absent from school and started complaining, and even the students and the principal, and teachers’. Now, becoming concerned by the whole issue they said :"Why are you always absent?". I was afraid... of the discovering that I was HIV positive. At that time I didn’t have enough courage to tell it to the whole school. I thought I would be discriminated. Then one day, |I went to the principal’s office and told her the reason why |I had been away from school for all this time. And to my surprise, |she sat me down and counseled me. And, said to me " We are going to form all the other teachers. And I can assure you that we’re going to be very supportive."

St James students’ Drama Group performing : “You have to take care of yourself, if you do have HIV and AIDS. Do you think that this thing kills, that AIDS kills. It doesn’t! It only kills if you allow it to. Let me see my results. This is not true!”

Interview of St James’ HIV positive teacher: “When you have this virus, you have to accept it is there.
And at present, there is no cure for it. It is within you and it’s there, and you have to live with it. I think the example I’m setting in this school is going to help them a lot. Even those who maybe ill|at the given moment, will come out and see they are not discriminated.”

Interview of LAT’s HIV/AIDS Coordinator: “A teacher is actually a leader, that’s how they are generally perceived. They are community leaders. I’m thinking back to when I was still teaching. I started teaching very young. In the community you’ll find, all the people will be consulting me, for almost everything.”

LECAWU, the largest garment workers’ union in Lesotho, is also tackling the ravages of HIV and AIDS. With the support of the American Solidarity Center and the International Textile Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation, the union has initiated peer-education and counseling activities in the workplace.

Training session in a garment Factory : “This is how you hold the condom. You need to avoid air to come inside. You avoid letting air in. Can you see how tight it is?! This is very firm. It can not break. After you
finished having sex, you need to pull the condom out immediately. You can not break it. Then you make a knot and dispose of it.”
“Can I please have your attention?”

Workers "support groups" have been established in several factories under LECAWU’s initiative. Support groups are made of workers living openly with HIV.
The union has trained these workers as peer-educators and peer-counselors, which allows them to educate their colleagues, to undermine persisting misconceptions and to encourage them to know their status.
Recently, LECAWU has decided to extend support groups’ activities to the community to reach out to female workers’ husbands and other family members. Now it’s getting better in the unions.

Interview of LECAWU’s HIV/AIDS Coordinator: “Because we have trained many people on HIV and AIDS. And our aim to educate our members, is that they should go back to educate their fellow workers. And also we used study circles which are more efficient for spreading information to many people. So in the union people understand it. I know that some people who are HIV positive in our union, They can talk freely and they have the commitment of educating the others.”

Interview of LECAWU’s field trainer : “So far we have succeeded to motivate some workers through disclosure. Because we use people living with HIV and AIDS who are using ARVs like me. And we motivate people that you can still live positively and enjoy your life. It doesn’t mean when you are HIV positive you are going to die or something. It just means that you need to take care of yourself, use treatment and live positively.”

Lesotho and more broadly Africa’s under-resourced health care systems translate into interminable queues for patients. Workers often have to line up three or four days before they can even reach a doctor. As a consequence, workers rapidly exhaust the 12 days of paid sick leave they are entitled to.
Days spent waiting in front of clinics are considered as absenteeism, and are not paid by the employer. Garment workers’ sustain heavy salary losses due to this situation.

LECAWU has been trying to address this issue. At Precious Garments Ltd., the union has negotiated extended sick leave for workers living with HIV who need to go to the clinic for check-ups or treatment. A special break has also been negotiated with the management to allow HIV positive workers to take their treatment and get the appropriate food.

Such union actions at the workplace are part of core union missions. They contribute to improving workers’ lives and living conditions, and to combat a disease that threatens the future of many countries around the world. But more still needs to be done and on a wider scale.

The Lesotho Association of Teachers and LECAWU show us the right path to follow. Nevertheless, many unions around the world still lack the awareness, the financial support and the better coordination that is so badly needed.

Interview of LECAWU’s HIV/AIDS Coordinator: “I think in all the african continent we should start doing something. For example, when I think about other countries where they say that they are not concerned. But they see their fellow countries being infected or affected. I think those countries are
being affected also. So they should start doing something.”