Swaziland: HIV/Aids Blamed for 25 Percent Job Absenteeism

Mbabane — A quarter of Swaziland's workforce is absent from work because of HIV/AIDS, says a report by the International Monetary Fund.

The disease in Swaziland, which has the world's highest HIV/AIDS prevalence and is also one of the poorest, has shaved about 1.3 percent from its annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth, the IMF said.

About 40 percent of the country's one million people are thought to be unemployed; Swaziland would require annual growth of 3.6 percent to prevent worsening poverty, but currently struggles to achieve 2 percent, the IMF said.

"Over any 30-day period, at least 25 percent of workers in a survey did not go to work," said the IMF's annual assessment survey of the state of the nation's economy, and the effects of HIV/AIDS.

The IMF attributed job absenteeism to people suffering from HIV/AIDS as well as those staying home to care for people sick with the disease. According to UNAIDS, about 26 percent of Swaziland's sexually active population are infected.

"The impact on Swaziland's businesses is significantly larger than in comparative countries that also suffer from HIV/AIDS," the IMF report noted.

While 25 percent of Swazi workers said they had missed work for varying lengths of time during a one-month period, less than 20 percent of workers in Botswana (23.9 percent HIV/AIDS prevalence) and Namibia (15.3 percent), named HIV/AIDS as the reason for job absenteeism.

"According to a World Bank investment climate assessment survey [of Swaziland], over 50 percent of company managers reported much higher worker absenteeism due to sickness than other countries in Southern Africa," the IMF said.

The cost of replacing ill or deceased workers is expected to increase as the disease progresses from HIV to AIDS. Citing projections compiled by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the IMF report said by 2016, eight percent of Swaziland's GDP would be devoted to training workers to replace those who have died from AIDS.

"For a country that is struggling to achieve a two percent GDP growth rate annually, AIDS has made the difference between prosperity and economic regression," said Samuel Fakudze, a Swaziland-based economist.

HIV/AIDS makes investors think twice

The IMF calculated that the cost of replacing teachers alone would be R2.3 billion (US$230 million) in the next seven years. The Swaziland National Teachers Association acknowledged there was a rise in teachers' deaths, but was unable to provide statistics on how many were HIV/AIDS related.

"In Swaziland, denial about AIDS is one factor that has made it almost taboo for families to admit their loved ones passed away from an AIDS-related illness. You won't find AIDS listed as the cause of death on death certificates, and so we have no official number to work with," a union official, who declined to be identified, told IRIN.

Swaziland's HIV/AIDS prevalence is an unspoken but real concern for foreign investors. "With the global economy reducing investments everywhere, any detrimental factor will harm a potential investment destination," Emmanuel Myeni, an operations manager at a trucking firm located in Matsapha, near the country's commercial hub of Manzini, told IRIN.

"One of the unstudied areas of public health is to what extent unemployment contributes to AIDS in Swaziland. People without jobs have more time to engage in sex, and don't have money for health care or proper nutrition." Myeni said his company lost an average of six truck drivers each year to the disease - a third of the drivers.

Fakudze said, "It's a chicken and egg situation: Which is needed first - a healthy workforce to attract FDI [foreign direct investment], or new job creation to boost the health of workers by giving them an occupation and income?"

Along with basic fiscal and structural reforms, the IMF recommended that government place a greater emphasis on combating HIV/AIDS. The local media reported that King Mswati III, the last absolute monarch in sub-Saharan Africa, made no mention of the disease when he opened parliament earlier this year.

In a press statement, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini, who was appointed by Mswati, said the king's speech reflected general policy and was not specific about government programmes.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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