Extracted from AIDS: The Fear Syndrome, report produced by ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions). Report available in PDF on ICFTU website: www.icftu.org. ICFTU, Boulevard du Roi Albert II. B1, B-1210 Brussels, Belgium.
Much too often, the struggle against AIDS is waged in a piecemeal, fragmented way, when what is required is a high degree of co-ordination among all the social players - including trade unions which have a key role to play. In order to be effective, an HIV/AIDS prevention programme must target all those who can act as intermediate links with the population; teachers, employers, trade unionists, local chiefs, religious leaders etc. Workers organisations have excellent credentials. We are uniquely equipped to conduct this mobilisation because we belong to one of the largest and most interconnected networks in the world, pointed out AFL-CIO President John Sweeney at a recent EU/Africa trade union meeting on AIDS.
Trade unions throughout the world are increasingly aware that the mobilisation against AIDS is indissolubly linked to the values upheld by the trade union movement and the struggles waged by it in other areas; for example, against discrimination and social exclusion, against inequality between genders, and the protection of children.
In South Africa several trade union leaders have publicly admitted being HIV-positive in the past few months. The initiative came from ICFTUs affiliate - COSATU- which, in May 1999, called on trade union officials to take this step to show the way to the rest of the country and set an example to be followed.
Prevention campaigns must encourage dialogue and frankness. Prevention is the sole effective remedy against HIV/AIDS. Many trade unions have understood that and developed their own action programmes, without waiting for external help, which indeed may never come. This self-reliance does not prevent them from being extremely effective as in the Philippines, for example. There another ICFTU affiliate, the TUCP, has been instrumental in creating the main NGO active the struggle against HIV/AIDS. The TUCP conducts preventive awareness and training campaigns, producing a variety of materials (condoms, posters etc.), and facilitates agreements with the employers and the government. The union is particularly proud of its network of 14 health centres, which provide its 600,000 members with counselling, diagnoses and treatment in the areas of reproductive health, STD and HIV/AIDS.
In Mexico, the new generation of trade unionists is conducting a major effort to develop reproductive health programmes and educate people in the use of contraceptives, often through travelling exhibitions. Young workers, students and the children of workers are the main target groups of the Youth Committee of the ICTU and the CTM (Confederation of Mexican Workers).
In 1996, the management of a refrigerator manufacturing plant in the Philippines contacted an association active in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. This was done at the instigation of the trade union; the company employs 1,500 workers, the majority young, single men. Six workers from each of the companys departments, and representing all levels within the company, agreed to take part in an education programme sponsored initially by the association and later on by the Ministry of Health. After two weeks, these workers were qualified to hold small information sessions for their colleagues during working hours. The company also introduced an HIV/AIDS educational module in the first-aid programme as well as in training programmes. The companys quarterly newsletter regularly deals with the issue of HIV/AIDS in articles in English and the local language. An internal code of conduct, approved by the trade union, was adopted, upholding the individual rights and dignity of HIV/AIDS patients.
AIDS and gender
Women are more vulnerable to the disease, and often cannot make the choices to prevent this. In South Africa, these issues have recently been put on the agenda. At the Durban Trade Union College, Sarah Benjamin co-ordinates a programme in this area. The first workshop brought together some 40 women trade unionists from 10 different organisations and reached some fairly worrying conclusions: trade unions were developing few or no action plans on HIV at local and regional level, and even fewer gender-specific programmes. Participants believed this deficiency is due to the sexism prevalent within their organisations. We must radically restructure relationships between men and women, and this applies to trade unions too, confirms Sarah Benjamin.
Mining in South Africa
The gold-mining districts in South Africa attract thousands of workers, often from poor, remote regions. They earn wages, for hard and often dangerous work, well above the national average and most of them live in hostels, only occasionally visiting their families back home. There is a thriving sex industry and HIV rates are soaring. At the request of trade unions, since the early 90s, the mining companies have been implementing prevention programmes for the miners, including the massive distribution of condoms, medical care and treatment for STDs, and awareness campaigns. The Lesedi project started in 1996, in the mining village of Virginia. The Harmony company initiated a more ambitious programme with the help of the National Union of Miners(NUM) and various national and foreign organisations. Women working as prostitutes are involved in this strategy to combat HIV/AIDS. Some of them are trained to act as links between the sex industry and medical staff. The HIV infection rate has been halved and the two leading companies in the gold-mining sector, Anglo-Gold and Goldfields, have joined the initiative.
Sex workers and trade unions
In Latin America and Asia, trade unions are being formed among female sex workers. In Cambodia, where half of the prostitutes are believed to be HIV infected, they are receiving help from APHEDA, a foundation which depends on the Australian Confederation of Trade Unions (ACTU). APHEDA is helping to set up the Union of Cambodian prostitutes.