5 January 2009

Nigeria: HIV And Employability


"WE are a leading player in the food and beverage sector of the Nigerian economy. We are currently looking for young, self-motivated, creative and target driven professionals to fill the position of Business Development Manager in our organisation.

"Applicants must possess first degree in Marketing or any of the humanities, must not be more than 25 and should be able to work with little or no supervision".

These are familiar lines. It is a job advertisement.

But if you are a job seeker in Nigeria and still nursing the dream of working in that bank, oil company or IT firm, then there are certain realities you must prepare for, which such advertisements usually do not reveal.

That reality is simple: prepare for HIV test if you must get that dream job!

While it would appear preposterous for any job advertisement to indicate that 'successful applicants would be required to undergo compulsory HIV test and applicants, who tests positive would be not employed' it is, however, the reality many applicants are confronted with, as they embark on the search for a job.

These days, employers of labour require more than just what their job advertisement says: behind the words you read is an obnoxious policy of testing applicants for HIV.

That was the situation Dunni Adesegun (real names withheld) faced in March 2004 when she applied to work as accountant with a prominent oil company.

"I applied just like any other person and was successful until the point they asked us to do some medical tests, which they said was in line with the company's employment policy".

Having already known her HIV status and trained as a HIV counsellor, Adesegun was prepared for any test. What she wasn't prepared for was the reaction of the oil company management to her test result.

"They didn't believe my test result that said I was HIV-positive. I was asked to repeat the tests. The result was the same." She did not get the job.

"They tried to give another reason, but of course I knew what they were up to", she said. Holder of a first degree in accounting and master in management, delectable Adesegun went on to work as accountant with an international NGO with head office in Abuja and she is really doing well. For this oil firm, these attributes really don't count.

Like in nearly all cases of HIV-related stigmatisation in Nigeria, Adesegun's denial of employment never got to the court.

Her silence, like in other cases, were informed by three principal factors - lack of faith in the ability of Nigeria's law courts to dispense justice speedily, desire to avoid the stigma that the process of litigation can bring and, to some extent, insufficient evidence to challenge such discrimination in court.

These fears have continually been exploited by employers of labour in getting away with acts of discrimination against people living with HIV.

If this matter had been explored, perhaps it would have given birth to the Nigerian version of the Hoffman vs. South Africa Airways (SAA) case that successfully legislated against workplace discrimination on HIV.

Hoffman was refused employment as a cabin attendant by SAA because of his HIV positive status, but he successfully challenged the constitutionality of the refusal to employ him in the Witwatersrand High Court.

Medical evidence was placed before the court that showed that only those persons whose HIV infection had reached the immunosuppressant stage and whose CD4+ count had dropped below 300 cells per microlitre of blood were prone to the medical, safety and operational hazards asserted by the airline. The court, therefore, found that the assertion made by SAA was not true of Hoffmann and ordered the airline to employ him.

Four years ago, Nigeria missed an opportunity to achieve the South African example in the case involving Georgina Ahamefule and Imperial Medical Centre, Surulere, Lagos. Georgina was sacked after she was found to be positive by the hospital management.

Efforts to challenge the anomaly in court met with even more discriminatory action, this time, by the judge handling the case, Justice Caroline Olufawo, who ordered her out of the courtroom so as not to infect people sitting in the court!

As at the time of publishing this article, an appeal against Olufawo's action is still pending in court.

Some years ago, Federal Government took some steps towards putting in place a workplace policy that would protect Nigerian workers in an era of HIV/AIDS. Whether this policy would remain a mere paper work would be determined when next a worker is fired or a job seeker is denied employment not for incompetence but for testing positive to HIV.

One indispensable factor that would make this policy workable within our context is for human resource managers (or human capital advisors as some are called) to acquire information on the basic facts of HIV/AIDS. That way they would stop their unholy liaison with their company's hospital or medical unit to conduct clandestine albeit unethical HIV staff without their consent.

Perhaps many top company executives still see themselves as immune to HIV infection hence they continue to conduct HIV test on their employees indiscriminately and fire those who test positive. Sadly, they are among the groups considered most vulnerable to HIV infection. The men among them are very mobile. They are rich and attractive. They can hardly take their hearts off stranded campus girls. They are equally the attraction of sophisticated commercial sex workers. They can never be bold enough to test for HIV, but won't blink before showing any one who has tested positive the way out of the organisation.

Not a few people believe that progressive organisations the world over should be doing something positive about HIV/AIDS.

For instance, NBA - a member of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS (GBC) is fighting stigmatisation and discrimination against people living with HIV. In a TV commercial it produced some time ago, famous Chinese basketball player, Yao Ming, joins Magic Johnson (diagnosed HIV positive over a decade ago and still living well) on the court to play basketball. They shake hands, eat together and Yao shows Johnson how to use the chopsticks, thus countering the misconception that HIV can be spread through causal contacts.

Standard Chattered Bank is another global player that is doing something about HIV/AIDS.The organisation is teaching other companies how to care for HIV positive employers and operate a humane workplace as regards HIV/AIDS policy. In Nigeria, companies such as Nigerian Breweries, Sheraton Lagos, Cadbury Nig. Plc, Unilever and Nigerite are firms showing others the way as far as AIDS response within the corporate world is concerned. This move is not really an extension of the company's social responsibility but a move that makes real business sense.

Kingsley Obom-Egbulem is a behavioural change and communications expert with IDEA WORKS, a top ideas and communications firm based in Lagos, Nigeria.

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