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Philippines - workers with HIV face discrimination

Ana P. Santos Manila
February 9, 2018

Philippine workers infected by HIV suffer workplace discrimination on account of their health status and usually do not seek redress, revealed a new report released by Human Rights Watch today. Ana P. Santos reports.

Philippinen HIV und Aids
Image: Pulitzer Center/DW/V. Villafranca

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on Friday, February 9, documented cases where people living with HIV (PLHIV) were not hired, forced to resign or terminated.   

There were also instances of harassment and shaming of PLHIV by supervisors and colleagues. Under Philippine law, PLHIV cannot be denied employment on account of their HIV status. Mandatory testing as part of pre-employment requirements and disclosure of HIV status without consent are also prohibited.

Despite these provisions, the workers usually did not file formal complaints because they feared additional harassment or did not know where to go to seek redress, the report stated.

"This situation points to a whole gamut of problems that reflect the poor implementation of the HIV Law," Carlos Conde, HRW researcher, told DW. "The Philippines has the worst HIV epidemic in the region and yet the government response has been lame and weak," he added.

Fastest-growing epidemic

The Philippines has the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the Asia-Pacific Region. In 2010, there were four new reported cases of HIV in the Philippines every day. That number ballooned to 31 new cases every day in 2017. As of November, the Department of Health (DOH) recorded a total of 49,733 HIV cases.

HIV crisis in the Philippines

About 83 percent of those cases were recorded in the past five years, with infection rates clustering among men who have sex with men or transgender women who have sex with men falling between the ages of 15-24.

In August last year, the government declared HIV a "national emergency" but still, interventions to address the epidemic have been slow.

While the 2012 Reproductive Health law mandates the teaching of sex education and HIV-related issues in schools, a national curriculum to do so has not yet been implemented. Neither is there a nationwide awareness and education campaign about HIV and condoms as a proven effective intervention against the spread of the virus.

"Stigma and discrimination has been shown to impact negatively on health-seeking behavior of PLHIV, such as delay in diagnosis and treatment," said DOH Undersecretary Eric Tayag. "Work-related stigma and discrimination is not well documented not only in the Philippines but in many countries as well. There is no single bullet to eliminate the stigma."

Poor implementation and monitoring 

"The policies and laws to curb the spread of HIV infection and criminalize workplace discrimination against PLHIV exist. The problem is the implementation of these laws and monitoring of any violations," said Lui Ocampo, country director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS or UNAIDS.

Ocampo, who worked as community health doctor before taking the UNAIDS post this year, told DW of his own accounts of PLHIV who lost their jobs and sought his assistance. Some of the instances Ocampo recounted occurred in restaurants where managers and employers became wary of PLHIV servers handling food.

Manila's midnight callers

The incidents, said Ocampo, showed the low level of awareness and understanding of the ways that HIV is transmitted. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is transmitted only through the transfer of bodily fluids such as semen and vaginal fluid, blood and breastmilk.

"I have talked to managers of these companies to tell them that termination or non-hiring of a PLHIV is unlawful. They usually claim that they are unaware of these laws and are only implementing company rules," said Ocampo.

"Even when faced with the discrimination, a PLHIV is not likely to file a complaint. The multi-layered bureaucratic process along with the vague and cumbersome process of filing a complaint across different government offices just discourages them," he said.

Success story, but only one

Currently, there is only one documented case of an employee who filed a complaint of discrimination against his employer and won. Renato Nocos had been working for the popular Ricky Reyes chain of beauty salons when he disclosed that he had tested positive for HIV and was subsequently terminated.

In 2014, Nocos accused salon management of firing him because he had HIV and filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC). After two years, the NLRC ruled in his favor ordering the salon to pay back his wages, benefits and attorney's fees.

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This is but one case, and health advocates say that government should go beyond ordering erring companies to reimburse employees for lost wages.

Mara Quesada, executive director of Action for Health Initiatives Inc. (ACHIEVE), stressed the importance of preventing discrimination and creating a workplace environment where PLHIV can thrive and succeed. ACHIEVE provides free legal support for PLHIV who experience discrimination but by then, Quesada says it is too late.

"The damage has been done. A person already lost his job or has already been thrown out of his home or already been humiliated on line," Quesada told DW.

"If we do not catch up with the epidemic, scale up and fast track our prevention and treatment programs, we would really face a huge problem. The burden of the growing epidemic will be felt by the health sector and eventually, but by the labor and development sector," Quesada told DW.

A bill to amend the current HIV law in the Philippines aims to lower the age of consent for HIV testing to 15 and will have stiffer penalties for companies that discriminate against PLHIV.