How employers can help battle Aids

south africaBusinesses, and consequently South Africa’s economy, lose big money each year to HIV/Aids. A study commissioned by AIC Insurance last year showed that South Africa lost about R12-billion a year because of workplace absenteeism, of which between R1,8-billion and R2,2-billion could be attributed to HIV/Aids.

And it is also worrying that according to the Actuarial Society of South Africa, close to one in five South Africans between the ages of 20 and 64 are infected with HIV -- a large part of South Africa’s workforce.

Thus, for many companies, looking after their HIV-positive employees has become a necessity. HIV/Aids has become the new brain drain.

But, large corporations with the financial resources to implement HIV/Aids workplace programmes are making inroads into addressing the problem in their sectors.

One such company is First National Bank (FNB), whose programme is aimed at educating, training, testing and encouraging people to access treatment. Says Dimakatso Shirinda, national HIV/Aids manager for FNB: “A big part of it is encouraging people to get tested ... People are bombarded with HIV/Aids and the challenge is to disseminate information that is empowering.”

Shirinda says that another challenge to addressing HIV/Aids is that, often, high-risk groups don’t take part in voluntary testing. She hopes that a long-term result of the programme will be getting to those high-risk individuals, so that they can access support and treatment.

Mining companies such as Anglo Platinum, AngloGold Ashanti and BHP Billiton also have extensive Aids programmes, while trucking companies such as Barloworld are all too aware of the impact of the disease on their business and have implemented a comprehensive programme to address this.

But many critics feel that big business simply isn’t doing enough. The judges in this year’s Mail & Guardian Investing in Life Awards were concerned that businesses' HIV/Aids social responsibility programmes were simply doing the minimum and not going the extra mile.

Research done last year, by the Bureau for Economic Research in conjunction with the South African Business Coalition on HIV and Aids (Sabcoha), suggests that employer response to the epidemic appears linked to company size.

According to Brad Mears of Sabcoha there is a trend for small businesses not to recognise the affect of HIV/Aids in the workplace. It is written off as mere absenteeism and the root cause goes unaddressed.

Diane Ritson of PeopleManagement, a company involved in HIV/Aids awareness in the workplace, agrees that big business does seem to be doing a great deal to combat the toll the disease takes on employees.

Ritson says small businesses often have to utilise multiskilled employees who fill more than one occupational role. Also, training of employees, per capita, is expensive and time consuming. The loss of workers such as these is detrimental to small business.

Ritson’s company has come up with a means to help small business address the issue of HIV/Aids in the workplace. It has created a toolkit based on the Know your Status campaign, which Ritson launched in 1999. The toolkit is a cost-effective, self-help programme with a basis in training that enables companies to educate employees. This allows breadwinners to take that knowledge home and inform their families and communities.

Ritson says that, because of HIV/Aids, South Africa is seeing an increase in the ratio of breadwinners to dependents. At present it is one to six; by 2010, it will be one to 12.

Gavin Walton, director of operations for CareWorks, a healthcare company specialising in all facets of HIV/Aids management, says that because of expense and resource constraints it is difficult for small business to take on effective HIV/Aids workplace programmes.

He says the government should step in and look at things such as tax breaks and the use of the sector education and training authorities to make it more advantageous and easier for small companies to have workplace programmes.

Selling solutions
HIV/Aids is taking a heavy toll on societies in developing regions. Several African economies are buckling under the weight of the virus, which could also stall India and China's economic advance.

In recent years, the role of the private sector has come under the spotlight. Corporate social responsibility is all the rage. Executives feel increasingly accountable to shareholders and society for their firm's fiscal behaviour, environmental impact and relationships with local communities.

HIV/Aids has not yet become part of most social responsibility programmes, but ignoring the problem presents risks. HIV/Aids primarily affects people of working age. According to South African experts, the country's annual 4% GDP growth will be unsustainable if the infection rate continues to increase.

Brands have powerful weapons to promote the behaviour change that is essential to HIV prevention, including product innovation, accurate consumer insight and powerful marketing.

Business action on HIV/Aids has generally taken the form of branded philanthropy. MAC Cosmetics, for example, donates 100% of the proceeds from sales of its Viva Glam lipsticks to HIV/Aids organisations.

The most prominent example of an HIV/Aids-related branded philanthropy is "Red". Rock star Bono and friends announced this international initiative in 2006. American Express, Apple, Converse, Emporio Armani and Motorola have launched Red sub-brands, with a percentage of profits donated to the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

In countries such as South Africa, however, where the threat of donor fatigue looms, branded philanthropy is no longer sufficient. It is therefore evolving in to corporate social opportunity (CSO). Consumers will reward companies who invest in CSO by purchasing CSO products and services.

In South Africa, Levi's has teamed up with the NGO New Start, which provides mobile HIV counselling and testing services. The services have been branded under the Levi's Red for Life name and offered in fashionable tents in malls and other convenient locations. In its first two weeks, it achieved a 200% increase on the normal flow through New Start testing centres.

There are many other untapped opportunities for companies to gain financially while helping to address HIV/Aids. The government could offer tax incentives for CSO integration and support CSO products and services via access to public-sector audiences.

source - Mail&Guardian