Huffpost WorldPost
Bernard Pollack Headshot
Danielle Nierenberg Headshot

Combatting HIV/AIDS in Africa: Changing Behavior with Worksite Education and Testing

Posted: Updated:

Cross posted from Border Jumpers.

Surrounded by neatly trimmed bushes and flower beds, Johnson Matthey Catalysts in Germiston, South Africa, just outside of Johannesburg, looks more like a botanical garden than a factory. But every day nearly 600 workers pass through its doors to their jobs on an assembly line making catalytic converters that are inserted in cars to reduce pollution, complying with South Africa 's auto environmental emissions standards.

As we arrived, Percy Nhlapo, a trainer with the Solidarity Center, an AFL-CIO affiliated non-profit organization that assists workers around the world who are struggling to build democratic and independent trade unions, was leading a discussion with a group of ten workers, correcting misconceptions about contracting the HIV virus and urging participants to get tested. The Solidarity Center is working in partnership with the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA), an industrial affiliate of the country's largest union Federation COSATU, to train and provide free HIV/AIDS testing and counseling to several thousand manufacturing workers a year.

"HIV/AIDS affects everyone, educating workers is the first step in helping them prevent further infection, getting tested is the second," said Percy. He likes educating smaller groups to ensure a deeper, more open discussion and estimated that he and fellow trainers, Kuki Ndlovu and Nhlanhla Mabizela, would train at least 200 workers that day alone.

After the training, nearly all the workers voluntarily agreed to be tested. At the testing area, we spoke with registered nurse Dorothy Majola, who said that before workers are tested they are given private counseling, and then she administers two separate tests -- both with 99.99 percent accuracy -- to ensure correct results.

"I find this job so rewarding because it so important that people know their status, as soon as they know their status they can change their lifestyle and behavior, which it will allow them to live longer lives," said Majola.

Within ten minutes after being tested, workers are escorted from an outdoor waiting area with tea and refreshments to sit privately with a counselor and receive their results. We spoke with several counselors who told us that the vast majority of workers test negative despite, in many cases, believing that they were infected. One counselor told us that this relief often translates into a change in behavior.

The company, Johnson Matthey Catalysts, in coordination with NUMSA and the Solidarity Center, agreed to host the training, allowing workers to attend and get tested at the beginning and end of their work shifts. The shop stewards spend weeks before the training educating their co-workers about the importance of attendance. This type of cooperation ensures that throughout several days nearly everyone at the plant participated in the training and testing.

Brian Shezi, the HIV/AIDS program director for the Solidarity Center, told us the workers' unions are effective spokespersons to train and encourage HIV testing because of the fundamental trust and connection workers feel towards them.

"Since October 2005 we've been working with unions to promote access to HIV/AIDS services, education, gender training, and union capacity building," said Shezi.

Visiting worksites is just one of many techniques the Solidarity Center is using to educate workers about HIV/AIDS. At the Rwanda/Uganda border in Katuna, Uganda, we visited a HIV/AIDS Resource Center providing a safe space for long-distance truck drivers to socialize and receive free education, counseling, and HIV testing.