MOZAMBIQUE: Businesses invest in AIDS fight

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The offices of CETA-Construction and Services in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, are more reminiscent of a health centre than of a company that builds houses, schools and roads. There are boxes of condoms on the reception desk and health-awareness posters hang in the corridors.

According to Antonio Romeu Rodrigues, CETA's director general, the emphasis on health and prevention is justified.

"Ten years ago I lost my best truck mechanic and my best lab operator to AIDS. If I didn't do something about this epidemic, my profit was going to suffer," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

Since Mozambique's civil war ended in 1992, the economy has expanded rapidly with gas, aluminum, sugar, tourism and construction fuelling a consistent annual growth of between six and eight percent.

But with an adult HIV prevalence rate of 16.2 percent, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that by 2020, 17 percent of the Mozambican workforce will have been lost to the virus.

The epidemic also impacts household incomes. When a family member is HIV-positive, money has to be found for nutritious foods, remedies and, in many cases, funerals, the ILO points out.

The organisation estimates that Mozambique's annual GDP growth is already one percentage point less than it should be as a result of the epidemic.

Business reacts

In 2005, Rodrigues helped found the Association of Business People against AIDS ("Ecosida"), which now counts 45 private businesses as members.

Cornélio Balane, executive director of Ecosida, explained the group is showing business people that "the loss or absence of professionals is the same as the loss of profits".

"Mozambique lacks skilled labor. Because of this, to suddenly lose a professional in whom we have invested and trained for 15 years does more damage than you can imagine," said Rodrigues.

Agrifocos, a producer of manure and chemical fertiliser in Maputo, became a member of Ecosida this year, and has trained some of its workers as peer educators. Through informal conversations the volunteers try to raise awareness among their colleagues about HIV prevention and AIDS treatment.

Balane said that workers at Ecosida-member companies were already reporting less prejudice and more interest in testing for HIV; and about 90 percent of those tested come back to learn their result.

Henriqueta Cuna, 33, is a machinist at Catucha Trading, a Maputo concern that makes office supplies. HIV-positive, she lost her husband three months ago. One of her two daughters, who is six years old, is also infected. Getting treatment for herself and her daughter require her to miss work frequently, but she is not docked pay for her absences.

According to Bernardo Jambane, the company's HIV point person, as well as being tolerant of absences due to medical reasons, Catucha also refers employees to the the Polania Caniço Hospital in Maputo where the company helps fund antiretroviral treatment.

The company also gives basic food packages to Cuna and other HIV-positive workers.

Following the law

One of Ecosida's main goals is to get all businesses to follow a 2002 law that governs HIV in the workplace. The law prohibits mandatory HIV testing, cracks down on discrimination, and demands medical assistance for HIV-positive workers.

According to Balane, the businesses that belong to Ecosida are trying to follow the guidelines, which sets them apart from the majority of Mozambican firms.

"Business people fear spending anything on projects to fight AIDS and the stigma that attaches to workers with HIV," he said.

Rodrigues had this message for other business owners: "Sooner or later, every business owner is going to realise that it's better to think about their workers' good health than to lament the bad health of their business's finances."

Source: PlusNews