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Amid HIV epidemic, weak government response to unlawful firings, harassment

Workers and employees in the Philippines living with HIV who suffer workplace discrimination often do not seek redress, Human Rights Watch said. The Philippines has the fastest-growing HIV infection rate in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Kevin,” 36, a call center agent from Cagayan de Oro who was diagnosed with HIV in March 2015, said he had no idea what he could do after his company forced him to resign. “As a result, I lost not only my employment but also the benefits due me after I left,” he said.

Sadly, Kevin’s story is not uncommon; as stigma and discrimination continue to be among the biggest issues facing Filipinos living with HIV.

Workers and employees in the Philippines living with HIV who suffer workplace discrimination often do not seek redress, Human Rights Watch said. The Philippines has the fastest-growing HIV infection rate in the Asia-Pacific region.

Workplace discrimination in the Philippines includes refusal to hire, unlawful firing, and forced resignation of people with HIV. Some employers may also disregard or actively facilitate workplace harassment of employees who are HIV positive. In most of the discrimination cases that Human Rights Watch documented, employees with HIV did not file formal complaints, most frequently due to fear of being further exposed as HIV positive, which could prevent future employment.

“The Philippines faces a double whammy of increasing HIV infection and fears by workers with HIV that they can’t seek justice if they are discriminated against on the job,” said Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to ensure that people living with HIV get better protection in their jobs and that the public gets more and better information on HIV.”

HIV stigma and discrimination and official indifference?

The number of new cases in the Philippines of HIV, which causes AIDS, jumped from only four a day in 2010 to 31 a day as of November 2017. From just 117 cases a decade ago, the total number of HIV cases as of November 2017 is 49,733, an overwhelming majority of which – 41,369, or 83 percent – were reported in the past five years alone.

Most new infections, up to 83 percent according to the Philippine government, occur among men or transgender women who have sex with men.

The increase prompted the government to declare a “national emergency” in August 2017. The epidemic is fueled by an environment hostile to policies and programs proven to help prevent HIV transmission. Government policies create obstacles to access to condoms and HIV testing and limit educational efforts on HIV prevention.

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The Philippines has strong laws on the books, notably the HIV/AIDS law, which criminalizes workplace discrimination against people living with HIV. But there is little evidence that the government is adequately enforcing the laws to prevent and punish workplace discrimination. 

The extent of workplace discrimination is difficult to ascertain, Human Rights Watch said. Government agencies authorized to investigate and prosecute violations of the HIV/AIDS discrimination laws do not maintain a database of cases and rely almost exclusively on nongovernmental organizations such as Action for Health Initiatives (ACHIEVE) and Pinoy Plus, which only have databases of people seeking their services.

However, in Human Rights Watch interviews over the past year with these nongovernmental organizations and 33 people with HIV, workplace discrimination was ranked among their most serious concerns. Many said they had no information about how to seek redress.

Government agencies such as the Departments of Labor and Employment, Health, and Justice, and the national Commission on Human Rights do not have specific information about the number of workplace HIV discrimination cases they have received or processed over the years. Apart from HIV awareness campaigns for the staff of these agencies, they do not have specific programs to encourage people who suffer HIV-related discrimination to file complaints.

People with HIV appear very reluctant to file complaints. The Commission on Human Rights handled one case in 2017, said Leah Barbia of the commission’s Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights Center, but she was uncertain about previous cases. “I think the problem is that people with HIV who felt discriminated just don’t know who to approach to seek redress,” Barbia told Human Rights Watch. 

The Department of Labor and Employment’s National Labor Relations Commission, which handles labor disputes not settled in mediation, has no data on complaints filed by people living with HIV, except for one case filed in 2014 and decided in 2015, said Maria Ricasion Tugadi, head of the commission’s research and legal department. She said in an email message that it may be because “most problems arise pre-employment/pre-engagement of the worker. If during the mandatory health checkup it comes out that the potential worker is HIV positive, the employer may possibly withdraw the offer.” 

Even before the recent surge in HIV/AIDS cases, the need for better information on redress mechanisms was evident, Human Rights Watch said. A “Stigma Index” prepared by Pinoy Plus in 2010 listed workplace discrimination as a key issue among people with HIV. A 2011 country analysis of AIDS in the Philippines commissioned by the government’s National Economic Development Authority and three United Nations agencies found there was “fear of employment discrimination” by people living with HIV. In October 2010, UNAIDS considered the problem serious enough to publish a short book, Seeking Redress for HIV-Related Violations of Human Rights in the Philippines, which outlines the redress mechanisms available. The book, however, has not been widely circulated. 

The Philippine government should create a major education and awareness campaign through various media to inform people living with HIV of their rights concerning workplace discrimination, Human Rights Watch said. It should direct concerned agencies to create and publish regularly updated databases of discrimination cases. And it should conduct an expanded public education campaign about HIV and address the wider issue of social stigmatization of people with HIV.

“The workplace experiences of people living with HIV bring to light the tragedy within a tragedy of the HIV epidemic in the Philippines,” Conde said. “The Duterte administration will need to act to ensure that the increasing numbers of people with HIV don’t result in ever greater workplace discrimination.”

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