Jun 25, 2010

ITUC affiliates share strategies to fight HIV/AIDS in the workplace

Strategic union partnerships, new ILO standards highlighted at congress luncheon

VANCOUVER—The world’s richest nations may be dragging their heels on developing a comprehensive HIV/AIDS strategy, but the same cannot be said of the international trade union movement, whose embrace of strategic global union partnerships to tackle the pandemic is making a difference in the workplace.

Some of these partnerships were highlighted at a lunch-hour forum held on June 24 on the sidelines of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) congress.

The forum, on universal access on AIDS and workplace prevention, highlighted key elements of labour’s campaign to challenge world leaders on HIV/AIDS. Panel members including CUPE National president Paul Moist also discussed HIV prevention, treatment, advocacy and support for workers, and examined how new guidelines developed by the International Labour Organization (ILO) can advance universal access issues in the workplace.

Laying down the gauntlet

In his remarks from the panel, Moist praised international groups such as World AIDS Campaign (WAC) and the Global Union AIDS Programme (GUAP), with whose members CUPE worked closely on the recent petition campaign to G8 leaders.

“We must begin to build on these new partnerships and reach out to civil society organizations and other unions,” said Moist. “We will talk to PSI about how we can build the work and how to find ways of engaging more affiliates. And we should look at ways to be more supportive of the activities of the Global Union AIDS Programme.”

Turning his thoughts to the Canadian government, Moist noted that the Harper administration’s inaction on HIV/AIDS is but one example of how Canada is “increasingly offside politically” on a number of fundamental issues. He reminded delegates of former UN AIDS envoy Stephen Lewis’s rhetorical question to G8 leaders, on their failed promise at the Gleneagles G8 summit in 2005: “How can the world come up with billions of dollars to wage war in Iraq, or raise trillions of dollars to rescue banks ‘too big to fail,’ but not assemble $10 million to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic—meeting an objective we set five years ago?”

On the eve of the G8/G20 summit, the CUPE National president issued a fresh challenge to Harper: introduce a maternal health initiative that recognizes the reproductive rights of women, end patent protection for pharmaceutical companies that prevents distribution of drugs in the poor countries that need them most, and set an international aid target of at least .07 per cent of the wealth of this country for all forms of international aid, including the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Partnerships making a difference in Africa

CLC secretary-treasurer Hassan Yussuff described the CLC’s unique partnership agreement on HIV/AIDS with ITUC-Africa which has set a new standard for coalition-building efforts on the pandemic.

“In AIDS we have an epidemic that is killing workers and their families,” he said, describing the situation in sub Saharan Africa, which accounts for 65 per cent of HIV infections worldwide and 72 per cent of the world’s AIDS-related deaths.

“It is holding back the economic progress of many nations, continuing the cycle of poverty allows the disease to flourish. Workers who could otherwise contribute to their country’s economy are being struck down. This pandemic is also having a devastating impact on women who bear the weight of responsibility for their families.”

Yussuff said that the intent behind the partnership was to find more proactive ways to address how the AIDS crisis affects the African workplace. The CLC and ITUC meet annually to set priorities for promoting effective workplace initiatives (such as peer education, counseling programs and worker exchanges); identify areas for coordinated advocacy work that links Canadian and African unions; lobby governments of industrialized and developing countries on universal access (and develop common approaches for doing this); and support and strengthen the HIV/AIDS work of the Global Union AIDS Program (GUAP), the ITUC and other labour organizations.

Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, general secretary of the ITUC-Africa, said the partnership has proven effective.

“With the CLC, it is the first time we have worked so closely with a partner who has used an advocacy approach toward government decision-making which could affect things for years to come,” he said.

“With so many Canadian embassies in Africa, that has provided us with many opportunities. The campaign has allowed us to highlight the importance of universal access, treatment and support. We need to link this approach to what happens in the workplace.”

Adu-Amankwah said that ITUC-Africa would work to set national goals for universal access that targeted specific employers, as well as beefing up its organizing, fundraising and research efforts.

Having the right tools for the job

ILO AIDS representative Eric Carlson, in a passionate presentation, urged delegates to support a new international labour standard on HIV/AIDS, passed at the ILO’s annual convention in Geneva last week. The first international human rights instrument to focus specifically on the issue in the world of work, the recommendation, said Carlson, will significantly raise the bar for employer compliance.

“It will provide a major contribution to making the dream of an AIDS-free generation a reality,” he said.

The new ILO standard is the first internationally sanctioned legal instrument aimed at strengthening the contribution of the workplace to universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. According to the ILO website, it contains provisions on “potentially life-saving prevention programmes and anti-discrimination measures at national and workplace levels” and “emphasizes the importance of employment and income-generating activities for workers and people living with HIV, particularly in terms of continuing treatment.”

Carlson said it strengthens the impact of the Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS in the workplace that was adopted in 2001, and will address gaps in implementation. Migrant workers are mentioned explicitly because of the discrimination they face, and there are targets for action affecting other segments of the population that may be vulnerable.

“The scope of application is astounding,” he said. “It covers all areas of employment activity, and applies to all workers, in all workplaces. Whatever region you’re from, whatever sector you represent, you will be covered by this agreement. This is a document we should be proud of.”

Carlson concluded that the next steps going forward from the recommendation are to take a sector by sector approach that solicits input from all employee groups, improves access for migrant workers, and involves trade unions in a workplace monitoring mechanism on HIV/AIDS policy.

“This is the tool,” he said of the new instrument. “Let’s make it work.”

Implementation always a challenge

Not everyone was convinced by the “iron-clad” strength of the new recommendation.

Jaap Wienen, the ITUC’s deputy secretary-general, acknowledged that the international trade union movement is fortunate to have come away from Geneva with the new agreement, but he is uncertain how much teeth it will have.

“Unfortunately, I am not so optimistic as Eric that it will be as easy to implement it,” he said, noting that obstructive employers are always a major hurdle.

“I have no illusion that without the pressure of the union movement the employers will not act. We have a theoretical basis, but only practice leads to results.”

A delegate from Senegal agreed that implementation would be a problem. She said her organization represents a large number of informal workers, including vulnerable women and children, and that more training would be needed.

Moist argued that society must first end the various stigmas associated with AIDS, including homophobia.

“The best policies that we negotiate are meaningless if we can’t implement them,” he said. “And if we can’t end the stigma and discrimination, then we can’t implement these policies. We need leaders, we need champions, and we need people to come out and help end the stigma. Then we can implement.”

Moist pointed to someone in the room—former New Democrat Member of Parliament Svend Robinson, now working for the Global Fund against AIDS in Geneva—as an example of that leadership. As the first openly gay politician in Canada, said Moist, Robinson created space in the political arena for others to follow, leading to more understanding and less stigma.

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