How people living with HIV/AIDS battle employment discrimination, job search stress


•Don’t keep quiet, send a petition, FG tells victims

Completing higher education studies should be one of the happiest moments for any scholar after sleepless nights and uncountable sacrifices. But this was not the case for a 33-year-old graduate identified only as Nsidibe, who has been living with HIV/AIDS from birth.

Nsidibe told our correspondent that his convocation day was the saddest day of his life, because it brought reality closer to him than he had expected.

He said that he didn’t bother to attend the convocation because he envisaged that the degree would be useless to him.

“There is no need to get a certificate one would end up not able to use,” he said, punctuating his words with long strings of silence as someone running out of breath.

“Before going to university, I tried getting a job as a hotel assistant. After a series of tests and interviews, which the administration manager told me I performed excellently, I didn’t get the placement. I returned to ask them what happened and the admin manager, in the presence of some members of staff at her office at the time, blurted, ‘You say you get HIV, you come here to find work. We tell you say here na hospital? Abeg, carry your HIV dey go!’. Everyone turned and looked in my direction and I walked away in shame; I could feel their eyes pierce through my veins, he said.

Nsidibe said he kept trying different offices as his final transcripts were being processed by the university, adding that every firm he applied to turned him down at the final stage of medical examinations.

He said, “Some told me outright that I shouldn’t have applied because of my ‘condition’; others just said they would get back to me. I am physically strong and I can work. I made a second class upper grade in my degree. I have been on antiretroviral medications for over 15 years now and I am responsible. I still don’t understand why my HIV status has to be used to judge me, even the multinationals.”

Ndisibe said he resorted to working with local firms who could not afford to get a test done, but on one occasion, his employer brought in a walk-in nurse and told everyone that they would be tested for HIV/AIDS.

“I resisted at first. I thought it was a joke. I asked him if he was serious. He said if I didn’t want to get tested, I should quit. I stood there and told him that I was HIV positive and have been so from birth and wasn’t going to take the test. He laughed and paused, asking me if I was serious. When he saw I wasn’t joking, he told me to leave the office,” he added.

Nsidibe noted that as days turned into weeks, people in his neighbourhood spoke about him in whispers.

He added that a trader and barber in the vicinity would refuse to attend to him, stating that the development made him realise that his health status had become a knowledge in the neighbourhood.

“I was treated like an outcast, like I was some deadly animal that would devour anyone I came close to. It was both embarrassing and funny. My ‘friends’ would send me a text and call me all sorts of names and I kept wondering what I did wrong. It wasn’t my fault that I have HIV. I was born with it.” he asked.

I sometimes regret giving birth to him – Mother

Speaking to our correspondent, Comfort, Nsidibe’s mother, said her son’s unemployed status had always been a source of worry to her, stating that she always  encouraged him that ‘even normal people in today’s Nigeria do not have jobs,’ so he shouldn’t dwell much on it when declined employment.

She added, “I know my son is brilliant. He has been like this since childhood. Watching my son go from office to office and returning back with same story of discrimination makes me livid. Sometimes, I even regret giving birth to him. I should have terminated the pregnancy, but it was too late; the doctors said I could lose my life as well.’’

Comfort said it was when she was pregnant with Nsidibe that she found out she was HIV positive.

According to her, her hopes went bleak even though her husband was supportive, he did not live long enough to show her support.

“Sincerely, I cannot tell how I got it. I was a teacher at a private school and was healthy. I only went for our normal routine checks and the doctor called me into the office and started educating me about HIV. I wondered what pep talk was about until he told me that I should be strong that I had the virus.

“I thought I was going to die, because I had never come in contact with anyone who had HIV/AIDS. I think I fainted. My husband was also confirmed positive. I cannot even tell where it came from. I don’t want to go over how my home felt during those periods. My husband will come close to me and I will push him away, because I was still trying to understand where the virus came from. It was a really trying time for my family,” she noted.

Comfort said the situation took a more awkward turn when she told her pastor’s wife about the situation and it became a prayer point centring on her name.

She said, “You’d hear things like, ‘Let us pray for Sister Comfort’s family because the devil is tormenting them with a deadly disease. HIV is not a joke!” I left the church and changed location entirely, but there was little I could do. Before I knew what was happening, my husband died and news went round that AIDS killed him and I was next in line. Some said I was a prostitute and God was paying me for my promiscuity.’’

Identities of the individuals have been protected against discrimination.

Face of employment discrimination  

Nsidibe and Comfort are two of the estimated 3.5 million People Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria according to the recent figures released by the World Health Organisation.

According to hiv.gov, six states in Nigeria account for 41 per cent of te People living with HIV, including Kaduna, Akwa Ibom, Benue, Lagos, Oyo, and Kano. HIV prevalence is highest in the southern states at 5.5 per cent. Since 2010, AIDS-related deaths have decreased by 35 per cent to 2019, and 89 per cent of those with a positive diagnosis in Nigeria are accessing antiretroviral treatment.

Amid this situation, employers are wary of employing PLWHA.

Constance, a 37-year-old mother of three, is another person living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria. She noted that her situation was akin to being an outcast as every employer identified her as a liability.

She said she stopped going for interviews because she knew it would end up in a medical examination which would be used to judge whether she was qualified or not.

“When my employer finds out about my status, they act like I would die the next minute. They would begin to treat me with resentment and would not want to have any more conversation. Some would pretend to be fine with it, but you’d never get feedback as to whether one would be employed or not. I would later find out that the role has been filled,’’ she said.

Constance said she didn’t only lose jobs on account of her medical status but also got jilted by her fiancé after knowing about her status.

She noted, “He didn’t even let me explain but shouted “Asewo (prostitute)!’’ when I told him. This was the same person that promised me everything when the going was good. But when it was time to stand by me, he left.’’

The unemployed graduate of business management said she lost her first husband when she was pregnant with her last child and she had to cater to her three children on her own, hawking food in the streets of Uyo with a truck.

She added, “All my children are negative. My husband, till he died, was negative. I knew my status on time, and began treatment. Though I was afraid with my first pregnancy, when the test was done on the child, it came out negative.’’

On why she left her last job, where she worked as a teacher, she said the proprietor one day said every employee would undergo a medical examination, stating that it was a directive by the Ministry of Education.

She stated, “I requested to see a circular to that effect, but he told me that if I didn’t want to get tested, I should look for another job. I resigned that day. I worked with him for over six years as one of the pioneer staff. I was with him when he had nothing. I told one of my friends about my status, but I didn’t know she disclosed it to the proprietor and that would be the reason he said we must all get tested and present our results to him. Since then, I decided to stay unemployed and look for a way to feed the three children. Every employer sees me as a liability; I see myself that way, too, so I won’t blame them.”

A similar situation is what a 42-year-old lady identified only as Gift is experiencing.

Gift said her husband abandoned her with the kids the day they went to the hospital and discovered she was HIV positive.

She added, “My kids are negative. I was negative before I got married. I don’t know how I contracted it but my husband that I should ask questions has abandoned me.’’

The sit-at-home mother said most of the jobs offered her were domestic roles in homes of influential people, adding that the recruiters usually told her she would take HIV/AIDS tests.

Gift added, “Once they tell me I will undergo a medical test, I don’t return there. My first experience was unpalatable. I am a graduate of Mass Communication. My ex-husband didn’t allow me to work then, because he said I should stay at home and take care of our children. Else, by now, I would be in a bank which offered me a job after graduation. After my husband left me, I went in search of a job that would give me time to take care of my children and still work. I got connected to the wife of a politician in Bayelsa. She told me to come for an interview. After the interview, she said I needed to do medicals because it was a live-in role. I offered myself to be tested. She called me one day that I should resume. When I got there that day, the woman insulted me that I was wicked knowing my health status yet wanted to take up the job and infect her children. I almost died that day. Since then, I sell wares in front of the house to survive.’’

Effects of discrimination

A human resources manager in one of the commercial banks in the country who spoke to our correspondent on condition of anonymity said that most firms would pose as ‘equal opportunities firms,’ but in truth, want to make their money and go.’

He said, “Nobody wants to have to make some special changes for an employee, even if that is the way it ought to be done. Once we see a person who has HIV/AIDS, it is assumed that certain adjustments have to be made, and not all companies are willing to do so.’’

On his part, Director Vulnerable Group Department, National Human Rights Commission, Dahiru Bobbo, in an email response to our correspondent on the matter stated that PLWHA were often discriminated against by employers of labour ‘as well as in the health sector.’

He claimed that the health status of PLWHA was often revealed without their consent either by health workers or employers of labour who conduct HIV tests as precondition for employment. Bobbo stated that such often resulted in denial of employment, stating that such was discriminatory.

A retired professor of sociology at the Lead City University, Ibadan, Oyo State, Adetanwa Odebiyi, stated that it was unfair to discriminate against PLWHA on the basis of their health status which they had no control over.

Adetanwa said, “Every individual has a right to education, good health, job opportunities and others. If you discriminate against them and not give them jobs, you are ‘killing’ them already for life, because they are already going through a lot of challenges medically as a result of the condition. Now, you don’t want to give them a job based on that status; that is so unfair. Now, people have palliative treatment for HIV/AIDS. It is like hypertensive patients who have to be on medication for life. PLWHA also may have to be on their antiretroviral drugs for life. They should have equal rights to job opportunities.”

She added that the HIV status of anyone should not be used as a criterion to judge whether or not the person was qualified for a job. She noted, “We have hepatitis which is even more contagious than AIDS, and many employees cover it and may infect others. But for AIDS, once you are on medication, you can work effectively and people will not even know you have the virus.”

Position of the law

In 2015, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS issued some guidelines which referred to HIV-related discrimination as the “unfair and unjust treatment (act or omission) of an individual based on his or her real or perceived HIV status. It defined HIV-related stigma as “negative beliefs, feelings, and attitudes towards people living with HIV, groups associated with PLWHA and other key populations at higher risk of HIV infection.’’

The discrimination and stigmatisation regarded as human rights violations often make them more vulnerable to other related psychological as well as physical illnesses.

There are various laws and policies for the promotion, protection and enforcement of rights of PLWHA. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Labour Organisation Recommendation concerning HIV and AIDS in the World of Work 2010 (No. 200) including the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended).

In the UDHR, Article Two notes that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other status’.

The ILOR concerning HIV/AIDS took it a step further by stating clearly in the General Principles No. 3 (c) that “there should be no discrimination against or stigmatisation of workers, in particular jobseekers and job applicants, on the grounds of real or perceived HIV status…”

In Section 34 (1) of the Nigerian constitution (as amended) states that, “Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly,” Sections 34 (a) also states that ‘no person shall be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment’.

HIV and AIDS (Anti-Discrimination) Act, 2014, signed by former President Goodluck Jonathan, in Part II Section 3 provides that ‘People Living with or affected by HIV or AIDS have a right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of their HIV status concerning access to and continues employment, conditions of employment, amongst others.

Bobbo further stated that everyone was entitled to human rights accruable to him/her irrespective of race, sex, religion, health status and no one should be discriminated against.

He stated, “These rights include the right to work, among others. However, discrimination and stigmatisation which are major barriers to the enjoyment of human rights by PLWHIV in Nigeria constitute human rights violation.

“Therefore, any act contrary to the provisions of these legislations is a violation of human rights. PLWHIV victims can seek redress of violations through the court of law according to Section 26 (1) (2) and 27 of the HIV Anti Discrimination Act, 2014 which provide the right of an individual to commence a civil suit to get civil remedies and sanction of the court. Also section 28 of the HIV Anti-discrimination Act, 2014 stipulates that ‘Nothing in this Act shall preclude a person living with HIV or affected by AIDS from seeking redress against any person or institution for any breach of his or constitutional rights in accordance with the provisions of Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended.’’’

According to him, victims of discrimination on the basis of HIV status by employers can seek redress by lodging complaints to the National Human Rights Commission as provided in Section 1(c) of the National Human Rights Commission Act 1995 (as amended) that the commission can ‘assist victims of human rights violations and seek appropriate redress and remedies on their behalf.

Bobbo said, “The right to work is a basic human right. Therefore, any PLWHA whose rights are violated by any employer of labour or in any other area has every right as a human being to seek redress in any court of law or at the National Human Rights Commission as the above listed legislations and more are available to support his claims.’’

Despite the legislation, things have not been different because they are still being discriminated against.

This is the case of another PLWHA who gave his name only as Caleb. The 24-year-old told our correspondent that his health status caused his abandonment by family members.

He said some employers employed him out of pity only to start exhibiting obvious discriminatory acts against him.

Caleb stated, “One of my employers separated many things for me. They gave me my own toilet. In fact, everyone in the office knew I had HIV. If I went to my employer to say I had a headache, she would ask me if I wanted to resign so I could focus more on my health. It was embarrassing. They remind me every minute of my medical status. One day, I summoned up courage and resigned. I left Port Harcourt to stay with a friend. I hold a National Diploma, but no one wants to employ me so I don’t ‘infect’ others.”

Perspectives of medical, HR experts  

A medical doctor at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba, Lagos, Dr Agboola Ogunbiyi, said the problem was not about the virus but the person’s compliance with medication.

He said, “If I am in-charge of a pre-employment medical screening and one or more candidates happen to be HIV positive, for me, that is not even a major problem. We have to know if the person knew this before now. Then, if the candidate knew, then, how compliant has the person been in taking his/her medication? If (s)he is compliant with medication, then, we can assess the person based on this. We have some investigations, like the viral loads and also the CD-4 count.”

He also noted that though different jobs may require different screening exercises, more emphasis should be placed on more contagious diseases such as hepatitis and not only on AIDS.

Also, a Lagos-based public health expert, Dr Samuel Okerinde, noted that HIV/AIDS was like any other virus and could be better managed with medication.

Okerinde stated, “There is no need to stigmatise people living with HIV/AIDS, because it is just a virus (in them) like we have other viruses, such as Hepatitis B and others. It is treatable. The virus, sometimes, may not even be detected in the blood. This means they have the virus, but because of the low viral loads, it is not detectable during screening. This means they can lead normal lives.

“Viral screening for some jobs is essential, because one needs to know the baseline of such workers before giving them the job. It’s essential for a health worker or any job that requires one to deal with anything that is sharp, such as cooks and some cleaners. One cannot force anyone to get tested for HIV/AIDS. It must be voluntary.

On his part, a London-trained human resources advisor, Tijesunimi Arewa, stated that it was ridiculous that any company would base their judgment solely on the HIV/AIDS status of a prospective employer.

She said, “I have never had to let a qualified prospective employer go because (s)he is positive for HIV/AIDS. What we do is, when we find out the person is LWHA, we tell him/her to get boosters and make sure their viral loads are down and come back to work with us. This is not just because we are protecting our employees, but because we want this new employee to be healthy as (s)he begins the job.

“In my organisation, we don’t do that. When we ask you to do a medical examination, our major focus is on whether or not you are physically and mentally fit for the job. When the result comes, it comes to the table of the HR manager, who is well-trained on how to handle this issue. Even the executive management will not see it, because it is not their right to do so. It is sensitive information. It is filed separately and this is all in the interest of the employee in case there is an emergency. But to use that to qualify the person for a job is totally unprofessional.”

She advised HR personnel and government to have a more robust conversation around this to tackle issue of discrimination against PLWHA.

“I think there is a need for a bigger conversation amongst HR personnel to amend some practices that have outlived the era. More light should be shone on this area. There is not supposed to be a big deal out of this. Someone with HIV/AIDS is even healthier than someone with other health matters that can slump and die on the job. That is even a big deal. I find it ridiculous that anyone would judge one’s fitness for a job on whether or not (s)he is positive for HIV/AIDS,” Arewa added.

Sociologists, lawyers react

Besides, a Professor of industrial sociology, Ekeoma Iheriohanma at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Imo State, noted that it was a socio-cultural implication associated with the fear of death as people feel PLWHA go around ‘sharing’ the virus.

He said, “There are socio-cultural implications that affect the way people in society react to PLWHA. There is a proverb in Igbo that ‘What will only cure it is death.’ This simply means it is not curable, and nobody wants to die.  No matter how literate and exposed one is, it is difficult to do away with that mentality that mere body contact with PLWHA would have one infected.

“That stigma has been engraved in our marrows as Nigerians that whoever has that kind of illness is certainly going to die and so no contact should be made with such a person. This is why if people know your status, it is even worse than when they do not know. Many people do not believe to date that it is an issue of blood and that it is not airborne. They are just being overly conscious ‘just in case’.”

He urged the government to step in by collaborating to get help for PLWHA.

In his contribution, a Professor of Sociology and Director, Mabayya House, Amino Kano Centre for Democratic Studies, Bayero University, Kano State, Mohammed Zango, urged the government to sensitise the masses on the matter to reduce stigma.

Zango said, “The issue, first, has to deal with general public sensitisation to make people realise how one can contract it. There should be a situation in which the government needs to take some actions to ensure the compliance of that law. This is not just to allow the individuals on their own to take this issue to court. The court processes, as you know, are expensive. There should be an underground mechanism where people can report their cases and get a comment. To allow people on their own to seek justice would be a lot difficult for them.

“Nigeria has not done much in the area of stigmatisation.  But most of the organisations would stipulate that for one to be employed, one has to physically and mentally fit. But that law is generic. There should be some exceptions. It seems like the law is overlapping. We have to revisit that law and see what caveats can actually go into it so we can care for these people.”

According to him, the rights of PLWHA should not be trampled upon by employers and other persons in the workplace.

In his comment, an Abuja-based lawyer, Hussaini Husssani, stated that the main issue was that of claim since most PLWHA may not want to approach a court to seek redress for fear of stigmatisation and victimisation.

He, however, urged any PLWHA whose rights had been violated to go to a court as a group, stating that the court had enormous powers to hear their case as a group or using pseudonyms to protect their interest.

Hussaini noted, “People do not go out to a court of law to make a case against a discriminatory prospective employer. They are scared that going to court to challenge the case would expose them even more. But I am sure that the court, using her enormous powers, shall give them the opportunity to be heard, and the court will protect their identities. They are people of interest, because they are being discriminated against. The court has the power to make sure they get a fair hearing and justice. They can also come in as a group and use pseudonyms; everything is in the powers of the court. But they can seek redress and get justice.”

Another lawyer, Selena Onuoha, said that because of how dicey the matter was it would be best to test it in court for precedence.

“I may not want to say if it is lawful or not, because the case is actually dicey until it is tested in court, because we need legal precedence. When we go to court, we can quote past cases and judgements,” she said.

Onuoha urged every employer of labour not to use the economic situation to be carefree about the employment process.

According to her, every prospective employer must consent to knowing what they are being tested for before any medical examination is done.

She said, “Of course, they should get the consent of the prospective employee on the kind of tests they want to carry out. They should specify expressly. One thing about some of these companies is that they just take advantage of the fact that one needs a job. They know you are desperate for the job and can do anything to have it. If you don’t take it, someone else will. Ordinarily, if it is in a civilised country where laws are respected, they are supposed to tell one expressly what they want to do and ask if one is comfortable with it.”

Affected PLWHA should send a petition to us—Labour ministry

When contacted, the Director of the Wages and Employment Department, Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment, John Nyamali, told Saturday PUNCH that he was surprised that PLWHA were still being discriminated against on the basis of their health status.

He urged affected victims to visit the ministry to file a complaint which he said the ministry would take.

Nyamali said, “I am hearing this for the first time. The people complaining should come to the Ministry of Labour and Employment to complain. We won’t know if they are being discriminated against if they don’t complain to the right channel so something can be done about it.

“There should be no discrimination in the workplace. If such a thing is still going on, they have to let us know so that we can do something about it. We have our monitoring groups all over the country. Let them come and report; we would take it up.”

He noted that the ministry wouldn’t support discrimination and stigmatisation, stating that if companies were still doing it, the ministry would oppose it.

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Publish date : 2021-11-19 23:30:24

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