More than 30 million people could be denied entry, detained or deported from 45 countries worldwide. They are neither terrorists, criminals nor drug dealers. The reason? They live with HIV.
Restrictions based only on positive HIV status deny the entry, stay, residence or work visas for people living with HIV, even though the HIV virus can't be transmitted through casual contact. These laws and policies not only violate human rights and don't protect the public health, they also harm a business's bottom line. In today's globalized economy and competitive landscape, work-related travel and relocation are essential for corporations to succeed. Companies have to be able to send our employees and executives overseas, regardless of their HIV status.
Yet HIV travel restrictions keep us from moving our best talent and valuable skills where they're needed. Travel restrictions can prevent HIV-positive employees from attending work meetings, conferences and site visits in nations where HIV restrictions exist, and from accepting a promotion or relocation if it involves frequent travel or moving overseas. These situations also may pressure employees to disclose to their companies why they can't obtain a visa or participate in work activities. Their HIV status then becomes an issue that their manager needs to address, not due to performance or health, but to policies that deny equal access to travel, movement and opportunity. Thus, HIV travel restrictions not only hamper a company's ability to freely conduct business around the world, they limit career growth and negate years of progress the business world has made in incorporating HIV confidentiality and non-discrimination policies into the workplace.
Similarly, such measures hamper suppliers of goods, resources and services that are critical to the growth of the private sector. Some of the leading countries in the apparel, manufacturing, energy and mining industries still impose some sort of restriction. Among the 45 countries are Australia, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.
Many countries enacted travel restrictions "to protect the public health" back in the 1980s when ignorance, fear and prejudice surrounded HIV. Since then we've learned about effective HIV prevention and now have antiretroviral treatment that has revolutionized the lives of people living with HIV so that they are fully productive workers living long and healthy lives. HIV treatment also reduces the amount of HIV in one's body to an undetectable level, lowering the possibility of transmitting HIV to someone else by some 96%. There's no evidence that HIV travel restrictions protect public health. To the contrary, some professionals leave their HIV medicines at home during business trips for fear that their pills will be discovered by airport agents. Skipping one's HIV medication can lead to drug resistance, a troubling and expensive public health concern.
All of these reasons are why CEOs are taking a stand this World AIDS Day on December 1st. The CEOs of more than 40 companies, including our own -- Levi Strauss & Co. and Kenneth Cole Productions -- have signed an unprecedented pledge calling on the 45 remaining governments to lift their travel restrictions. These CEOs lead some of the world's largest companies from Johnson & Johnson to The Coca-Cola Company from the National Basketball Association to Heineken, Pfizer and Aetna. And they represent a wide range of industries -- from travel to technology from banking to mining -- and almost 2 million employees around the world. The CEO pledge is an initiative of UNAIDS, Levi Strauss & Co. and GBCHealth, a coalition of more than 200 private sector companies engaged in HIV and other global health issues.
The good news is that many countries have lifted their travel restrictions, and we applaud them. Since 2010 alone, eight countries, including the United States and China, have repealed their bans.
We signed the pledge because we know that CEOs can influence governments around the world. HIV travel restrictions belong squarely in the camp of anti-business regulation that hurts free and fair trade. As global business leaders with significant investments in countries around the world, we call on the 45 remaining countries to repeal their HIV travel restrictions immediately. Doing so will put an end to these archaic and discriminatory practices and will allow businesses to operate at their fullest potential on a global scale.
Chip Bergh is President and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. Kenneth Cole is CEO of Kenneth Cole Productions and is Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR).
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