“15 workers of a renowned road construction company in Uganda were dismissed from work after testing HIV positive”. This was an alert from UGANET , a rights-based NGO that was brought to the attention of UNAIDS - the UN coordinating agency for the national HIV and AIDS response and ILO - the lead agency for HIV and AIDS and the world of work in Uganda. According to UGANET, 2 workers from a Chinese construction company that operates in Mubende and Masindi districts lodged in their complaint to seek redress after being dismissed from work because of testing HIV positive through a manipulative process.
According to the stigma index report (2015), 22% of the PLHIV reported losing jobs or incomes within the past year preceding the survey. About 8% of the respondents reported that they had encountered refusal to work in the previous 12 months. Discrimination by either co-worker or employer was cited by 24%. HIV and AIDS related stigma tends to have negative effectives and grossly affects the quality of life of people living with HIV, including restraining prevention, treatment, care and other support intervention.
Despite the situation, Uganda has taken efforts to address discrimination of persons living with HIV. The legal frameworks that specifically include; Employment Act (2006), national policy on HIV and AIDS and the world of work (2007), ILO Recommendation No. 200 concerning HIV and AIDS and the world of work (2012) Employment HIV – Non Discrimination regulations (2015), HIV and AIDS standard collective bargaining agreement (2015) all pronounce themselves on the protection of rights workers living with HIV, including providing for reasonable accommodation at the workplace. However, the challenge lies in adopting and implementing these policies widely.
It was in this context that the UNAIDS Country Director Ms. Amakobe Sande convened a partners meeting that took place on 13th June 2017 at UNAIDS boardroom, purposely to discuss and explore strategic litigation to the unfair dismissal of the affected workers and to draw out possible interventions for the protection of rights of workers living with HIV infection against stigma and discrimination at the workplace. The participation of the ILO tripartite constitutes; Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development, Federation of Uganda Employers (FUE) and the National Organization of Trade Unions (NOTU) in the meeting was inexorable, given their role in promoting and enforcing the legal policy provisions on employment and labour rights. In attendance were two members of parliament from the parliamentary committee on HIV&AIDS, UNCHR, UAC and UGANET.
Tripartite constituents, Parliamentarians, CSO and the UN demonstrating synergies in supporting litigation of workers unfairly dismissed because of their HIV status
The members unanimously condemned the act of dismissing 15 workers who had tested HIV positive, which tantamount to violation of workers’ rights, and resolved that UGANET, MoGLSD with involvement of the Industrial Court of Uganda, pursue litigation of the respective cases to a logical conclusion. “This incidence of dismissing workers with HIV infection today impedes on the progress that Uganda has made over the last 30 years of addressing HIV and AIDS” was the statement given by Acting Director of Uganda AIDS Commission, Dr. Nelson Musoba.
Hon. Judith Alyek, Chairperson for the HIV & AIDS Parliamentary Committee, committed to move a motion on the floor of parliament on the topic, particularly on the incidences of unfair dismissal. She said, “this will help to bring the problem to the attention of parliament in advocating for tougher sanctions of employers who violate rights of workers living with HIV infection”. However, she requested for more evidence from UGANET and MoGLSD of such practices to inform her advocacy strategy.
Mr. Kaggwa Stanley, the deputy Chairman General of NOTU further attributed the incidence of dismal of the workers living with HIV infection to the failure of the respective road construction company to sign Recognition Agreements for Trade Unions. Trade Unions are the voice through which aggrieved or victimised workers can seek for protection. NOTU pledged to peruse a court order that will warrant the respective road construction company to honour the freedom of association and allow for trade union activities, through which workers can be sensitized about their rights, including rights of persons living with HIV and AIDS.
From a strategic point of view, the ILO committed to collaborate with the Uganda Investment Authority that accredits foreign investors, to ensure that HIV and AIDS and the world of work becomes an integral component of the investors’ compliance frameworks. Further support will include providing technical assistance to the broader Chinese construction companies to develop and promote HIV and AIDS policies and programmes at their work place.
Ms. Amakobe Sande, the UNAIDS Country Director, who also chaired the meeting, emphasized UNAIDS support in this process that will mainly be through dialogue and diplomatic advocacy with the Chinese Embassy. The advocacy will help to explore long-lasting solutions of addressing violation of workers’ rights that is known to be prevalent among foreign business enterprises. UNAIDS further underscored their willingness to support UGANET in the court proceedings as Amicus Curiae.
What was of much significance about the meeting was the enormous synergies that were realised and the great potential, in terms of capacity, of the ILO tripartite constituents and the parliament in supporting the litigation processes, including identifying strategies for addressing HIV&AIDS related stigma and discrimination at the workplace. As such, the committee proposed to meet regularly to share the progress on the commitments made. The meeting also suggested to incorporate new members from the Equal Opportunities Commission, Uganda National Roads Authority and the National Forum of People with HIV&AIDS Networks, because of their comparative contributions to the cause. Overall, the collective discussions and commitments demonstrated that everyone can add a piece of the gig saw puzzle to achieve the desired results and everyone has a solution to contribute in eliminating workplace HIV&AIDS related stigma and discrimination in attaining the SDG on ending AIDS by 2030.