Sunday, October 30, 2016

HIVisions: New Order in The Office

By: Kris Tangco

The HIV crisis has gone on for four decades, and for four decades the world has struggled against it. Doctors, scientists, educators, policy makers, writers, artists -- people of all walks and all colors have, in their own ways, sought to make sense of this crisis and its relationship with society. From citizens to states, from medicine to prayer, from cures to cries for reform, people’s visions of how to respond to the crisis are as diverse as the people who bear its scars. The goal of this series is to give you a glimpse of these visions: the roles people of different passions and disciplines have played in this crisis that, as of March 2016 as recorded by the Department of Health’s Epidemiology Bureau, is infecting 25 Filipinos daily.

A hairdresser working at one of the salons operated by the Ricky Reyes Group of Companies filed a complaint against his employer for discrimination on the basis of his HIV status. The management, upon discovering his HIV status, assigned him to a branch that was about to shut down, leading to his eventual termination. The court ruling in the hairdresser’s favor was considered a landmark case in a country where discrimination against people living with HIV remains a serious issue, though it is rarely made public knowledge. It was, at the very least, a victory for HIV advocacy and legislation, showing that the laws in place, dangerously outdated they may be, still have the teeth to help fight against stigma.

In 1998, Congress issued R.A. 8504, to “promulgate policies and measures for the prevention and control of HIV/AIDS in the Philippines”. It prohibits mandatory HIV testing, ensures the right to privacy of people living with HIV (PLHIV), provides for basic HIV/AIDS health and social services, and penalizes discrimination in all its “forms and subtleties”. Section 6 offers a provision for HIV/AIDS education in the workplace, encompassing government and private sectors, requiring all employees to receive standardized instruction on HIV/AIDS, which includes basic information on the privacy of and respect towards employees living with HIV. Section 35 also forbids any form of employment-related discrimination, be it through recruitment, remuneration, tenure, promotion or assignment.

Almost two decades after R.A. 8504, in a time where as many as 25 Filipinos are infected daily, discrimination in the workplace remains unaccounted for. Gerard Seno, an official of the Associated Labor Unions - Trade Unions Congress of the Philippines, said that the organization learned that “many workers with HIV have lost their jobs, had their employment applications turned down, their promotions declined and access to affordable health services denied.” Statistics on the matter may be unavailable, but the stories never run out, and the need for greater public awareness of its impact on all workers has never been more urgent. Most health maintenance organizations (HMO) exclude HIV/AIDS services from their insurance programs, and while some companies do have HIV programs, inclusion of these tests and treatments in their health insurance policies often come at a cost. To date, there are no official figures on the number of registered companies that have HIV/AIDS programs and what these programs offer, making assessment of the bigger picture difficult.

LoveYourself, through its Philippine Business Sector Response (PBSR) arm, reaches out to various companies with the aim of bringing HIV/AIDS education and services to the workforce. Over the past several years, LoveYourself’s PBSR has reached out to the largest corporations, including HSBC, Convergys, and Teleperformance through HIV101 sessions and on-site testing. One company that has been touched by these efforts is PSG Global Solutions, a business process outsourcing company. We talk to Kriska Pineda from PSG Global Solutions’ Human Resource program regarding the company’s HIV program.

Kriska Pineda

PSG Global Solutions: A Basic Model with Flexible Implementation

The program’s provisions are included in what Kriska describes as “a rather basic document”, with guidelines derived from Order No. 102-10 of the Department of Labor and Employment which, among other things, holds employers responsible for providing “appropriate, accurate, and updated information on HIV and AIDS”. The company’s program, according to Kriska, is a response to the government’s call to the business sector. PSG Global Solutions, which drafter their HIV program in 2014, was one of the few companies that answered this call.

Kriska got in touch with LoveYourself through friends, and in the same year, the organization’s PBSR arm conducted its first HIV101 and on-site testing with them. As required by law, an employee assistance program was implemented, which provided PLHIV employees with benefits that allow them to continue working. One employee was granted a working schedule that allowed him to work at home for 3 to 5 days a week. Management saw this as a win-win situation: the employee was allowed to continue working and disruptions to company operations caused by the employee’s absences were minimized. The arrangement also made it more convenient for the employee to pursue treatment.

Despite having a written HIV program, Kriska admits that PSG Global Solutions does not have employee assistance programs specifically addressing needs of people living with HIV (PLHIV). But since being infected with HIV classes the person as being inflicted with an illness that may require a long leave of absence, arrangements allowing the affected employee to work from home are possible. And the employee’s company-provided HMO subscription continues for the duration of the leave of absence for up to six months, much longer than what other companies of similar size provide. For the case of the affected employee, the company intends to hold the policy until doctors deem the employee fit to return to his or her regular routine.  

But the company still allows room for discretion, Kriska explains: each situation is evaluated on a case-to-case basis. This means that the arrangements for the employee mentioned earlier will not necessarily be applicable to everyone. But this does not mean the implementation of their HIV program is inconsistent: only that management requires a certain flexibility in evaluating each case, balancing the sustainability of the services provided with the employee’s welfare.

Performance and Sustainability

Kriska tells us that PSG Global Solution’s main focus is work performance. At the end of the day, performance determines whether an employee will be kept, promoted, or be reassigned. That is the bottom line: whether or not the employee lives with HIV is irrelevant. Their HIV program’s main goal, therefore, is to guarantee the tenure of the PLHIV employee. The performance of the employee is the primary consideration for tenure-related matters including promotion and appraisal. In other words, health conditions such as HIV/AIDS are not bases in evaluating an employee.

“The lone employee who tested positive has always been ranked well for his work performance,” Kriska mentions several times during our interview. The company’s HIV program has allowed the employee to continue working, his skills and work ethic allowing him to continue contributing to the growth of the business. Furthermore, the company discourages discrimination in general and fosters an environment of acceptance by focusing on individual performance.

And HIV/AIDS issues aren’t just the concern of individual companies: they affect entire economies. Governments in Sub-Saharan Africa, which was significantly affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis, understand its effect on a nation’s coffers. Several countries in the region have experienced as much as a 4% reduction in their gross domestic product (GDP) due to HIV/AIDS, which when left untreated cripples a nation’s workforce, disrupts communities, strains public health services, and reduces the taxable population, among other things.

But the investment can come with great returns, according to some research. A study done by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), for instance, estimates that a company can have a return of 3.00USD for every 1.00USD invested in comprehensive employee welfare, which should include HIV/AIDS services. Multi-national companies like beverage giant Coca-Cola and automaker Mercedes-Benz have put HIV/AIDS initiatives in place, which include employee welfare programs and community-based partnerships, owing to the insight that strong HIV/AIDS initiatives also contributes to the bottom line.  

One can think of other scenarios with other conditions that compromise the employee’s ability to work well. In practice, HIV is not radically different from other conditions usually covered by HMOs. Labor laws require companies to provide adequate support by ensuring that the coverage of the subscribed health insurance policy is fully granted. With earlier detection made possible through regular testing and improvements in the government’s HIV/AIDS treatment services, management of HIV/AIDS is no longer sufficient grounds for dismissal. At best, early treatment of HIV will mitigate the replication of the virus and reduce, if not mitigate, symptoms and complications brought about by being infected by the virus.

Receptiveness to Further Improvements

Earl Patrick Penabella from LoveYourself's Caravans gives a talk in one of the organization's events

Kriska describes PSG Global Solution’s workforce demographic: the average median age is 26 years. The culture of the young work force allows it to look forward and be more open, Kriska believes. Coupled with a strong company policy against discrimination of any kind, the management was more than supportive of the HIV program.

Despite the success we’ve discussed so far, Kriska still admits that there is room for improvement. No HIV101 awareness programs, for instance, were conducted in 2015. “It’s about time we renew our collaboration with LoveYourself and make these awareness sessions a regular thing again”, Kriska says. As times change, it is important to keep abreast with developments related to the crisis.  In addition to inculcating knowledge about HIV/AIDS and the need to manage one’s health in the workforce, regular HIV101 sessions keep companies up-to-date, allowing management to make informed decisions about HIV-related cases. And having a policy that makes HIV/AIDS programs an institutional mandate ensures that advocates in the workplace have a legal basis for ensuring that these successes are sustained.

Awareness programs, similar to talks and campaigns organizations like LoveYourself has provided to companies like PSG Global Solutions, educate people about the psychosocial and biological aspects of the infection, enabling people to form ethical and evidence-based perspectives to combat stigma. Ideally, these programs should discuss the importance of timely testing, allowing earlier access to treatment, minimizing effects of the disease on people’s careers and finances, and relevant support systems such as health insurance.

While discussing other possibilities, Kriska’s face lit up as she mentioned the company’s interest in training some employees to become in-house peer counsellors for employees getting tested and for employees who already live with HIV. The potentially unique setup would bring the services of community centers right into the heart of the workplace and will offer employees the convenience of not having to travel to these centers. “The company has learned to become more open and accepting”, she said. And with openness, innovation in the service of people’s well-being can flow more freely, benefiting not just people living with HIV but everyone around them. And everyone profits.

Note: As of October 2016, Ms. Kriska Pineda is no longer connected with PSG Global Solutions. Interviews for this article were done in March 2016.

Photos: Facebook/LinkedIn Profile, Ms. Kriska Pineda; PSG Global Solutions Corporate Citizenship Page; LoveYourself Caravans.