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World AIDS Day - Employers in Cameroon: Saving tomorrow's workforce

The business world is now having to deal not only with the human cost of HIV/AIDS but also losses in profits and productivity. At the same time the workplace can play a vital role in reducing the spread and impact of the epidemic. In Cameroon, where just under 7 per cent of people aged 15-49 years are HIV-positive, the employers' organization GICAM has made significant progress in its "crusade against HIV/AIDS".

Article | 01 December 2005

EDEA, Cameroon (ILO online) - At the ultra-modern ALUCAM aluminium factory here, some 60 kilometres from the port city of Douala, employers are taking measures to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic that is devastating lives from here in West Africa all the way across the continent to the Indian Ocean.

In Cameroon, thousands of workers and their families are living with HIV/AIDS. As they become ill or die for lack of prevention, protection, treatment and care, families fall apart, the labour supply is reduced and tomorrow's workforce is put at risk. However, the employer-driven activities at ALUCAM have brought a new sense of hope.

In 1995, ALUCAM - Cameroon's leading aluminium manufacturer - launched its first prevention activities resulting in a comprehensive programme, including anti-retroviral treatment. At the time, HIV treatment in Cameroon cost about US$1,000 per person per month. Today, the cost of the monthly treatment is only between US$5.30 and 12.50 per person.

"Between 1985 and 1995 we were confronted with HIV-related deaths but we did not have the means to fight the epidemic and the country had no strategy with respect to HIV/AIDS", says Jean Booh, Director of Human Resources at ALUCAM. "We learnt how important it is to continue the fight against the epidemic outside the enterprise, including schools where tomorrow's workforce is at risk. We found that 2.5 per cent of pupils in the Edea region are HIV positive."

"You cannot fight HIV/AIDS alone"

ALUCAM is a member of Cameroon's leading employers' organization, GICAM (Groupement Inter-Patronal du Cameroun). When GICAM learnt about ALUCAM's programme it took up the challenge and mobilized its membership to fight HIV/AIDS at the workplace. The membership of GICAM comprises almost 250 individual enterprises and 20 sectoral associations, representing 75 per cent of the country's formal economy output.

"Since 2003 we have a common platform of enterprises. You cannot fight against HIV/AIDS alone. But companies like ours can bring in the necessary know-how and managerial experience", comments Jean Booh.

GICAM's experience started in November 2000 through a sub-regional workshop for 20 employers' organizations from West and Central Africa, organized jointly with the ILO, the International Organisation of Employers (IOE) and UNAIDS in Douala on "The Role of Employers' Organizations in the Fight against AIDS".

Follow-up activities carried out with the support of the ILO have included the mobilization of members on the issue of HIV/AIDS, representing the business community in policy-making and a range of forums dealing with HIV/AIDS, and building partnerships with government, workers' organizations, the World Bank, UN agencies and other stakeholders.

The development of an integrated approach to HIV/AIDS and health at work, safety and social protection by GICAM materialized in the implementation of plans of action against HIV/AIDS in 183 enterprises, including small and medium-sized businesses by the end of 2004. Tracking campaigns have been extended to other affections, including malaria, diabetes and hepatitis.

Increasing numbers of patients receive anti-retroviral treatment at the enterprise level and there is a growing number of voluntary tracking campaigns. More solidarity between employers and workers has also helped sick workers who now suffer less stigmatization and discrimination.

Information, awareness and education have been provided through various programmes and campaigns, including the "GICAM Crusade against HIV/AIDS" launched at a workshop in 2001. GICAM has also developed fruitful relationships with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labour. Building alliances and partnerships with the Government and UN agencies has been a key element of GICAM's HIV/AIDS strategy given the critical need for technical and financial resources.

GICAM is a member of a global coalition including UNAIDS, the State of Cameroon, enterprises, workers, the German Development Agency GTZ, Cameroon's National Social Protection Fund CNPS, the media and other stakeholders.

GICAM also uses the ILO Code of practice on HIV/AIDS and the world of work and its accompanying training manual and guidelines for employers. The Code was the first international tool to provide guidance on HIV/AIDS at the workplace, based on dialogue between governments, employers and workers. It can be found - with other key documents - on a new ILO CD-ROM which aims to help employers' organizations and their members to take effective workplace action against HIV/AIDS. The CD-ROM is just about to be finalized and will be available within the next few weeks.

Confronted with a wealth of information about HIV/AIDS, the CD-ROM helps users find relevant materials, identify key tools and resources, and share the experience of others. It provides employers' organizations and enterprises with accurate facts about HIV/AIDS and strengthens the business response to the epidemic. In addition to GICAM's work on the issue of HIV/AIDS, the CD-ROM also contains case studies from employers' organizations in Barbados, Botswana, Brazil, Cambodia, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya, Swaziland, Thailand and Uganda.

"There are both moral and economic justifications for companies to invest in solutions to the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS. The epidemic is not only seen as a profitability problem by top-level management but also as a human problem", concludes Jean-François Retournard, Director of the ILO's Bureau for Employers' Activities.

"GICAM's experience will serve now to develop an HIV/AIDS approach in employers' organizations and enterprises in other regions, like Central Africa and the Indian Ocean", he adds.