The Singareni Collieries Co. Ltd (SCCL) lost 29 HIV-positive employees between 2001 and 2005 when they became too sick to work. For the 100,000-strong public sector company, it seemed an insignificant number.

It took a specialist on HIV/AIDS from the International Labour Organization (ILO) to spell out the significance in terms of cost and productivity. Singareni Collieries had to fork out around Rs65 lakh in compensation to the 29 employees. The cost of antiretroviral treatment would have been a fraction of that, while a prevention programme would have cost as little as Rs50 per employee per year. Currently, the coal company has 311 HIV-positive employees, and may have to pay as much as Rs9 crore as compensation, while the cost of treatment would not go beyond Rs5.5 crore.

HIV/AIDS is a business issue because it affects productivity, and because the workplace has a vital role to play in limiting its impact.

“HIV/AIDS threatens the livelihood of many workers and their dependants—families, communities and enterprises," says S. Mohd. Afsar, HIV/AIDS specialist, South Asia, ILO.

Prevention pays

India has the world’s third-largest population of HIV positive people, with the latest government count showing between 2.5 million and threemillion patients, mainly in the working age group, between 15 and 49. But, less than 70 companies in India have a formal policy in place, according to a World Bank report.

Apollo Tyres employees trying to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS at Kalamassery in Kochi, Kerala

“This is an area of abject neglect by corporations in India," says Ashok Alexander, director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Avahan India AIDS initiative, which has allocated $258 million for prevention programmes, since 2003.

While that complacency can cost companies money, the cost of prevention programmes is almost negligible, say experts. ILO’s experience with its 10 corporate group partners showed that the average cost of a prevention programme covering a workforce of around 10,000 would be around -6 lakh. That translates to an average annual cost of 0 per person—much lower than the cost of first-stage drugs of 1,000 per person per month.

Some companies have addressed this concern. Public sector companies, including Steel Authority of India Ltd, Central Coalfields Ltd in Ranchi, Damodar Valley Corp. in West Bengal and Jharkhand, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd in Bhopal, Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport in Mumbai and corporates such as Gujarat Ambuja Cement Ltd, Ballarpur Industries Ltd, Apollo Tyres Ltd, Crompton Greaves Ltd, Hindustan Unilever Ltd and Jubilant Organosys Ltd are working at implementing HIV/AIDS interventions in all locations/plants, including their contractual workers.

Treating the symptoms

While some have an HIV/AIDS policy based on ILO guidelines, most either have HIV programmes woven into HR (read recruitment or medical benefits), or corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.

For instance, Apollo, which is in the process of drafting a policy, has had a prevention programme since 2001. Apart from covering employees at its 120 sales office and four manufacturing facilities, the tyre maker has also set up six Apollo clinics along the highways.

“These clinics focus on both detecting and treating HIV infections," says Sunam Sarkar, chief, corporate strategy & marketing, Apollo Tyres.

PepsiCo India, described by ILO as a model partner for the HIV/AIDS programme, initiated its awareness drive in July 2005 and plans to cover all employees and spouses, franchise employees, main vendors, farmers and villages around its factories. Since August 2004, Gujarat Ambuja has had an HIV/AIDS programme that covers employees, contract workers and families. “It’s important for our people to know that everybody is at risk and not just the truckers who form a significant part of our supply chain," says Pearl Tiwari, assistant vice-president, CSR, Ambuja Cements.

Approximately a tenth of India’s millions of truckers are HIV positive, compared with less than 1% of the general population, according to a World Bank report. Government efforts focus on such high-risk groups. The third phase of the national HIV/AIDS policy, from now till 2012, tresses prevention and has allocated almost three-fourths of its Rs11,585-crore budget for awareness initiatives.

Of the companies which do have programmes in place, most focus on prevention, and are yet to move into treatment and support programmes.

Says Yashashree Gurjar, chief general manager and head, CSR, Ballarpur Industries: “Corporates will have to step up efforts to establish more treatment centres." Ballarpur Industries recently started an anti-retroviral therapy centre in Chandrapur that caters to its four adjoining districts.

In both awareness and treatment, the role of corporates in fighting AIDS is largely limited to CSR initiatives. Though more companies are signing up, the numbers are still small.

Says Avahan’s Alexander: “I don’t see a big trend line here. The majority of the corporate sector continues to ignore HIV."