Renato Nocos was already working with celebrity hairstylist and salon chain owner Ricky Reyes for about 10 years when – sometime in 2014 – he claimed he was fired.
Nocos had TB in 2012, and “they made me rest for six months,” Nocos said to Outrage Magazine. “But after six months, enough na daw (they said it’s enough).” But upon his return to work in 2013, “kinulit niya ako kung ano ang sakit ko (He was insistent when he asked me what ailed me). So I told him.”
Nocos has HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).
After this, Nocos alleged that he was repeatedly transferred to salons that were about to go bankrupt; the last salon, in fact, “nagsara na lang (just closed) and I was shocked. I was told to report to the supervisor, which I did, and they told me they’d call me, but they never did.”
In 2014, Nocos obtained free legal assistance through the Associated Labor Unions–Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (ALU-TUCP), which helped him file a case of discrimination against Reyes and business partner Tonneth Moreno in the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC). Nocos also filed a separate complaint alleging that Reyes and Moreno failed to pay his Social Security Service (SSS) and PhilHealth premiums since 2003.
In February, the NLRC ordered Reyes to reinstate Nocos, and pay him back wages and benefits, including salary differentials, emergency cost of living allowances, 13th month pay, separation pay and attorney’s fees amounting to P615,313.06.
Though still being appealed, the NLRC decision was already lauded as proof that if people living with HIV (PLHIV) take a stand against stigma and discrimination (particularly when using Republic Act 8054 or the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998), there are gains to be had.
Nocos himself said that he hopes his (initial) victory at the NLRC serves “an encouragement” for other HIV-positive employees to fight for their rights.
But – here’s the catch – with the seeming over-emphasis on the “success” of Nocos (a person living with HIV) in pursuing the alleged culprit (the party that discriminated against him/people like him), there is failure to highlight that Nocos’ life actually dramatically changed because of his experience; and all because of his HIV status.
HIV-RELATED STIGMA & DISCRIMINATION
In January, the Department of Health’s (DOH) Epidemiology Bureau reported 804 new cases of HIV infections in the Philippines, which was 50% higher compared to the 2015 figure. Ninety-seven percent were male, with the median age of 28, and with more than half belonging to the 25-34 year age group, while 28% were youths belonging to the 15-24 year age group.
This continues the upward trend in HIV infections in the country that started in 2007.
It is worth highlighting that stigma (i.e. being seen as different from others) and discrimination (i.e. being treated differently) not only drive the 27-new-HIV-cases-a-day figure (with people fearing getting tested), but also make the lives of people living with HIV difficult.
In 2014, the UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) reported that on average, one in eight PLHIV report being denied health services, and one in nine is denied employment because of their HIV-positive status. Also, an average of 6% reported experiencing physical assault because of their HIV status. People living with HIV who are members of key populations also face “double stigma” since they get discriminated not only because of their HIV status, but also because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, drug use or engagement in sex work.
Unfortunately, an extensive study has not been done to ascertain how pervasive stigma and discrimination affect Filipinos living with HIV. Instead, there’s an abundance of anecdotal evidence highlighting this.
BEYOND LEGAL PROTECTION
According to Andrew Ching, co-founder of REDx, the problem starts with “self stigma”.
“Some people think being seen in a testing facility would automatically brand them as HIV-positive, which drives people away from getting tested,” he said. But for those who are already HIV-positive, “I also think that fear of being seen in a public treatment hub results to non-treatment or losing of PLHIV to follow-up treatment,” Ching said.
In Cagayan de Oro City, Stephen Christian Quilacio, co-founder of Northern Mindanao AIDS Advocates (NorMAA), noted of somewhat similar cases, where PLHIVs encounter difficulties accessing needed services, or if they do, service providers themselves violating the law (re disclosure of a person’s HIV status).
REDx cited examples of more “blatant” acts of discrimination, including PLHIVs who were denied service by hospitals in Bulacan and Laguna (one of them already died), and seafarers and overseas Filipino workers denied employment abroad even if the receiving countries do not have HIV-related restrictions.
NGO LoveYourself, meanwhile, also knows of similar cases – e.g. an OFW deported due to his HIV status.
RA 8504 is supposed to offer PLHIVs protection, but Ching said this hasn’t been the case.
“We have referred more than 20 cases of possible legal actions against employers and neighbors of PLHIVs who were discriminated based on their assumed HIV status; however, NOT a single case prospered as all the clients eventually pulled out their complaints. So is the law enough? In my case, it has never been tried. PLHIVs were afraid to pursue their cases because they’re afraid to get exposed,” Ching said.
“Basically, the law is not implemented as it should be,” said LoveYourself’s Ronnievinn Garcia Pagtakhan. “PLHIVs should also be empowered and they should know their rights.”Nocos, of course, tried it; but he did not only lose his job, as he alleged, but he was also kicked out by his family. Everyone disowned me,” he said.
“There’s an inadequate understanding of the law,” said Quilacio, “even by the PLHIVs themselves.”
To this end, Pagtakhan recommends increasing awareness, furthering empowerment and “implementation of the law.”
FAR FROM OVER
Ching believes that “we can only keep educating and informing people about HIV and AIDS so we can slowly (eliminate) stigma.” Here, a “practical” solution may be to have a celebrity spokesperson who can be trained and who can talk about HIV-related stigma and discrimination.
But Ching acknowledged that – with non-government organizations (NGOs) taking the lead in dealing with HIV – NGOs are always limited both in manpower and in funding.
And so for Quilacio, “the government has to step up.”
To deal with stigma and discrimination encountered by those already living with HIV, Quilacio believes in empowerment. “We have to empower PLHIVs by providing them protections as they step out of silence,” he said. To this end, amending the law to “protect their rights ought to be considered.”
Ching seconded this, particularly since RA 8504 is up for amendment.
Sen. Pia Cayetano’s version in the Senate, more specifically, has numerous flaws, including:
- The non-inclusion of strengthening the confidentiality clause beyond health provider settings to help protect the PLHIV community;
- Decreasing – instead of increasing – PNAC CSO representation to ensure proper representation of all key populations at risk;
- Mandatory opt-out testing and removal of written consent, instead of same-day test results for HIV and community-based testing that saw increased test coverage in other countries; and
- Removal of HMO and insurance provisions, thereby allowing for discriminatory practices to prevail.
As it is, implementation of the law has been, lacking. For instance, it contains mandates for Commission on Higher Education and Technical Education (CHEd) and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), but these are not properly implemented so that HIV is still not incorporated into the educational system of the country. Also, the “Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) already has a department order for HIV in the workplace but this is poorly implemented,” Ching said. “DOLE must be ordered to enforce its order to ensure workplace HIV policies are in place.”
“Without changes being made, starting with dealing with stigma and discrimination, the spike in the number of HIV cases will continue; while the number of those with HIV who will just die from a manageable disease will also increase,” Quilacio said.
The NLRC decision is now being appealed, with the camp of Reyes claiming that Nocos “distorted the truth”.
And so the case of Nocos is far from over.
And while he waits for the final decision regarding his case to be reached, others like him continue to live a similarly uncertain situation.
Still trapped in the continuing fear and loathing surrounding HIV.