HIV stigma 'killing people's ability to work'

Everybody has to work to survive. Sadly, in a country with an unemployment rate below 1 per cent like Thailand, those with HIV are struggling to find or maintain jobs.

That is the case of "Miew", who contracted HIV from her parents. Her mother died when she was in Prathom 5.

She is terrified of taking blood tests as required by many firms, whether at the start of recruitment or at an annual check-up.

"I don't dare tell my employer that I'm HIV-positive," said the 24-year-old woman who has lived with HIV all her life.

"Nick", 29, said he lost his job as soon as his employer found out that he had HIV.

His infection was detected when he complied with his employer's blood-test requirements. Before that, even he did not know that he harboured the virus.

"It was a double blow. First I found out that I had HIV and then my employer told me to resign," Nick said.

He believes he was infected by a woman sex partner.

The technical engineering graduate said he had no problems at work and his performance was good.

"I passed probation and was about to sign a contract as a permanent employee," he said.

After learning about the rights of HIV-positive people from the Aids Access Foundation and its campaigns, Nick filed a complaint and the foundation contacted his former employer.

Suntaraporn Ketkaew of the foundation said the company is denying that Nick was asked to resign because he is HIV-positive.

"It claims that Nick quit by himself. We are still trying to get him some compensation," she said.

Blood-test results should be given directly to the employees involved, she and other advocates say, not to companies' human resources departments.

"I've heard that, like Nick, many other employees also lost their jobs because they tested positive and the HR department found out."

She also cited the case of a teenager who has been living with HIV since birth.

"She lost her job because she worked at a restaurant and it had a policy of not hiring HIV-positive people," Suntaraporn said.

Generally those living with HIV faced fewer job choices.

"It's discrimination, but the reality is those with HIV have the ability to work just like other people," she said.

Since the first HIV case was discovered in Thailand in 1984, by 2010 about 30,000 children were estimated to be living with HIV transmitted by their parents.

The poor prospects of finding work as well as stigma make the lives of the HIV-positive harder.

"I had no friends when I was in primary school. My classmates just taunted me, labelling me the 'Aids kid'. They wouldn't play with me, let alone share anything with me. I had to eat alone during lunch," Miew said.

Students at school would scatter as soon as she showed up because nobody wanted to be near her.

"Luckily, my teachers understood. They stood by me," she said.

The help and guidance from the Aids Access Foundation also helped her move on.

"So, I've been able to focus on my dream of studying and working to support my elderly grandmother. I began doing odd jobs when I was still a primary student," she said.

Her life changed for the better once she started making friends in secondary school. She was also given the chance to go to Canada to attend an Aids-related conference - a move that boosted her morale significantly.

"After that, I felt as if my life was not so bad after all. If I have problems, I just keep telling myself that tomorrow will be better," she said.

This stigma is also hurting people's access to medication - as many as 200,000 people with HIV previously lacked access to anti-retroviral drugs.

As for Nick, he managed to get a new job at a firm that has no policy of screening applicants before hiring them or doing annual check-ups. However, potential discrimination has stopped him telling anybody about his HIV status.

"I haven't even told my parents," he said.

Nick does not need to take anti-viral cocktails yet, because he still doesn't have any symptoms. However, he can't help but worry about his job.

"I just started here and don't want to take any time off because I'm worried my co-workers will become suspicious," he said.

Miew said employers should focus on performance rather than blood-test results.

"Please give us opportunities, so we can prove that we are as good as or even better than others when it comes to work," she said.

She wondered why society shuns HIV-positive people, when they have to live with the infection all their lives.

"Don't waste our lives. We can work and contribute to society. Don't treat us like a burden."