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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 January 2006, 23:38 GMT
Business faces up to Aids challenge
By Bill Wilson
BBC News business reporter

Aids awareness among migrant workers in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, south-west China
There is a worldwide move to spread awareness among workers

Bird flu may be the new potential threat to world commerce but another illness has long been attempting to erode economic and human health.

An increasing number of business leaders now believe HIV/Aids will have a growing impact on their operations over the next five years.

A new report by global thinktank, the World Economic Forum (WEF), says nearly half of 11,000 business leaders surveyed in 117 countries believe it will have an increasingly adverse affect on them.

The forum's analysis builds on previous work by other organisations as diverse as asset manager F&C and investment bank UBS and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Seven steps for firms
Assess the threat
Develop a response
Start in the workplace
Link up with others
Address stigma
Look to the long-term
Monitor and evaluate schemes
Source: World Economic Forum

Now, the WEF says the challenge for firms around the globe is to convert this concern into schemes that manage the impact of the disease on their operations.

It says business can only benefit from new attitudes towards prevention, because comprehensive care schemes prolong staff members' working lives and lift morale.

The report from F&C and UBS showed the effects of HIV/Aids can be a serious blow to firms, as well as those living with the disease, as it usually hits people of young working age.

Their investigation found it can affect company profit margins, particularly in labour-intensive industries.

The disease can also hit consumption, though it follows an unusual pattern - for example, spending on staple goods tends to suffer more than luxuries.

'Robust programmes'

Africa has been hit hard, including South Africa, the continent's most dynamic economy.

But there are also worrying signs that it is on the increase in other growth economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China.

In order to successfully scale up efforts against the HIV/Aids pandemic, firms need to develop increasingly robust HIV/Aids workplace programmes
Francesca Boldrini, director Global Health Initiative, WEF

Not only are they growing marketplaces for assembly and outsourcing work, these nations are also taking a bigger role in many multinationals' global strategies.

Already some firms, such as banking group Barclays, are providing medical care for affected staff - it has a programme for African employees.

Anti-retroviral drugs
Barclays offers free medicine to HIV-positive staff

"Business is becoming increasingly aware of the positive impact it can make on the disease, but the devil is in the detail," says Francesca Boldrini, director of the Global Health Initiative of the WEF.

"In order to successfully scale up efforts against the HIV/Aids pandemic, firms need to develop increasingly robust HIV/Aids workplace programmes."

Staff retirements

The WEF found very few firms have conducted an HIV/Aids risk assessment, or implemented policies addressing the issues of discrimination in promotion, pay or benefits for those with HIV status.

As well as action in these areas, the WEF says there must be support systems to assist employees in gaining access to antiretroviral treatments, rather than focusing solely on HIV prevention.

The business community is uniquely positioned to use our influence, resources and leadership to challenge stigma, promote prevention and facilitate treatment
MTV president William Roedy

At Barclays bank in Africa, staff are offered confidential testing, while infected employees can receive free drug therapy for both themselves and up to three members of their family.

"We tell staff, 'If you are positive, you will get support and we will help you live a normal life'," says Paul Kasimu, the man behind the scheme.

It came after the firm experienced a lot of staff retiring on health grounds because they were HIV-positive.

Meanwhile, morale was low and absenteeism high, while the cost of providing emergency health treatment for staff was eating into profits.

'Business sense'

Barclays' corporate profits in Africa are on the increase, which the firm links directly to the success of the Aids programme.

"It's sound business sense," says Mr Kasimu.

He said if firms ignore their most important resources - the staff - then performance will suffer.

Indian Aids awareness kit
Emerging economies like India are being hit by HIV-infection

MTV Networks president William Roedy has also joined the business challenge to confront HIV/Aids and become more involved in the fight against the disease.

"The business community is uniquely positioned to use our influence, resources and leadership to challenge stigma, promote prevention and facilitate treatment," he believes.

MTV has been using its distribution platform to reach nearly a billion people with messages about HIV prevention.

'Strategic role'

Meanwhile, US-based firms have told the WEF they would be willing to expand HIV/Aids programmes in the workplace if the virus posed a threat to their customer base, or if distribution chains or supply chains were hit because of the illness.

Through the workplace we can protect people's lives and livelihoods by providing information and education, care and support
ILO director general Juan Somavia

Nearly half said they would be willing to step up schemes if workforce prevalence rose above 1% in the next five years, or if Aids philanthropy was shown to boost their firm's reputation.

Five years ago the ILO established a code of Practice on HIV/Aids in the World of Work.

"The workplace must play a strategic role in the fight against HIV/AIDS", says ILO director general Juan Somavia.

"Through the workplace we can protect people's lives and livelihoods by providing information and education, care and support."


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