Print edition : April 28, 2001

Interview with W. R. Varadarajan, national secretary, CITU.

The need to evolve a holistic policy on the issues relating to the workers affected by or are susceptible to HIV/AIDS infection was stressed by Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) national secretary W. R. Varadarajan in an interview to Richa Singh. Internationally, the rights of HIV/AIDS-affected workers is a big issue. In India too the issues would assume greater proportions and must be taken up by the trade unions, he said. Excerpts:

Do you think HIV/AIDS is really an issue for workers in India today?

HIV/AIDS is seriously affecting workers, particularly those in the unorganised sector. It affects persons in their most productive years and the "cost" of the disease for the worker and his family is irreversible. Given the rapidity with which it is spreading, it has become extremely important for trade unions to spread awareness about it among workers.

A recent study has pointed out that HIV/AIDS will pose serious problems at the workplace. The Bombay High Court judgment which asked for the reinstatement of a worker who had been thrown out of work after testing (HIV) positive, also demonstrates the reality of HIV/AIDS at the workplace. What are the issues that needs to be addressed here?

In India, such issues have not yet surfaced. Internationally, the rights of workers with HIV/AIDS is a big issue. These rights include no mandatory testing at the workplace and the right to confidentiality, and have been taken up by the trade unions. In India these issues will assume greater proportions and must be taken up.

Do you think the policy of the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) sufficiently "targets" workers and the poorer sections?

It is a small beginning and has not gone beyond the level of a rudimentary campaign. We are well into the second decade of AIDS and the emphasis continues to be on adopting safe sex practices. That is not sufficient, particularly for the poorer sections.

The employers' associations such as the CII have formulated an HIV policy for the workplace. How do you assess this from the workers' perspective?

It is good that the employers' associations are addressing this issue and have formulated some guidelines. These, however, do not cover the workers of the unorganised sector who are compelled by the labour market to migrate for work, live away from the families and are most susceptible to HIV infection. A holistic policy has to be adopted so that these most vulnerable workers are also covered.

Do you think the ESI (Employees State Insurance) Corporation should take up this issue?

The ESI Corporation has so far not developed any long-term strategy to tackle HIV/AIDS. Also, most of the workers in the unorganised sector are not covered by the ESI. The Government of India should initiate moves for a tripartite dialogue on this issue. There should be a collaborative dialogue between the Health and Labour Ministries, and a legal policy framework must be evolved to prevent HIV-infected persons from being discriminated against in getting jobs and in keeping their jobs.

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