Reportage

International Labour Conference tackles HIV in the world of work

03 June 2009

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Credit: ILO

Some four thousand representatives of governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations from 183 states around the world are meeting in Geneva for the annual conference of the International Labour Organization. Challenging the AIDS epidemic is high on the agenda and the development of a new international labour standard on HIV and the world of work is one of the key issues for discussion during the Geneva conference which runs from 3-19 of June.

The new labour standard, ground-breaking in its scope and reach, is designed to address the global threat of HIV in the world of work and is an international human rights instrument aimed at extending and strengthening the role of the workplace in the AIDS response.

The existence of an instrument focusing solely on HIV and the world of work will give new impetus to anti-discrimination policies at national and workplace levels. 

It will strengthen the contribution of the world of work to countries’ achievement of universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support and encourage information-gathering and reporting.

Dr Sophia Kisting, ILO/AIDS Director, in an interview with ILO Online

The virus affects the most economically active age range in every population and the majority of the 33 million people living with HIV worldwide are workers. Many are still subject to stigma and discrimination and the threat, or reality, of losing their jobs due to their status. Although some progress has been made, prevention and care strategies also need bolstering. The international labour standard aims to help change this situation and would be the first global human rights instrument to focus specifically on HIV and the world of work.

According to Dr Sophia Kisting, ILO/AIDS Director, in an interview with ILO Online, “The existence of an instrument focusing solely on HIV and the world of work will give new impetus to anti-discrimination policies at national and workplace levels. It will strengthen the contribution of the world of work to countries’ achievement of universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support and encourage information-gathering and reporting.”

The journey towards the international standard began when a first report, entitled HIV/AIDS and the world of work, Report IV (1), was sent to all ILO members in January last year. It contained a detailed and wide-ranging questionnaire concerning all aspects of the challenge to AIDS in the workplace. A second document, Report IV (2) , synthesized and summarized the nearly 250 responses received from governments, workers, employers and other partners, most of whom agreed with the need to focus greater attention on HIV through a new international instrument. It is the draft conclusions from this report that will be discussed in depth at the 2009 conference. A second discussion will take place next year and it is expected that the formal adoption of the labour standard will occur at this point. At present the proposal is for an autonomous Recommendation, but the final decision on its form and content rests with the Conference.

ILO Recommendations are not legally binding but serve as guidance for policy and law. If adopted, the new standard would be submitted to national authorities “for the enactment of legislation or other action” and would reinforce the impact of the existing ILO Code of Practice on HIV and the world of work which was adopted in 2001.

The global threat of HIV for workers is inextricably linked with the overarching theme of the International Labour Conference; the growing impact of the world financial crisis on employment and social protection. The ILO has organized a ‘Summit on the Global Jobs Crisis’ scheduled for 15-17 June, involving a number of Heads of State to examine this issue. The forecasts of rising unemployment and poverty have potentially grave implications for the successful response to the AIDS epidemic, given the connection between poverty and HIV.

The ILO highlights the fact that the crisis may lead to cutting of AIDS programmes. Increased poverty may also bring greater risk of HIV as some are forced into unsafe behaviour to support themselves. A recent World Bank report also stressed that funding for AIDS drugs is under threat as the crisis hits the health sectors in a number of countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. The International Labour Conference is committed to trying to ensure that the many gains that have been made in the challenge to the epidemic in the workplace are not lost or reversed due to current, stark economic realities.