Ukraine has one of the fastest growing rates of HIV infection in Europe. The highest incidence of the disease is among young, working age people, potentially the most productive sections of the population. Awareness levels are relatively low. Only an estimated 47 per cent of people living with HIV know their status and the frequency of HIV testing is particularly poor among key, high risk populations.
Given this background, Ukraine was an obvious choice to implement the ILO’s Voluntary counselling at work (VCT@WORK) initiative that aims to enhance voluntary HIV counselling and testing in the workplace.
The ILO in Ukraine went to work. A National Tripartite Cooperation Strategy on HIV and AIDS and the World of Work for the Period of 2012-2017 was adopted. The ILO was also, and continues to be, actively engaged in advocacy and capacity building in Ukraine, with particular emphasis on enhancing access to social protection for people living with HIV. We built links between ILO constituents and the All-Ukrainian network of people living with HIV, an advocacy and support NGO.
After some reflection with our partners we thought the best approach was to adopt a regional strategy for the VCT@Work initiative. In collaboration with the regional AIDS center, UNAIDS and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), we implemented a pilot project on VCT@Work in six enterprises of Cherkassy region of Ukraine, employing between them more than 10,000 workers.
Resulting from our combined efforts, over 8000 of workers in Cherkassy region were reached by awareness-raising activities, and 2017 have undergone voluntary counselling and HIV testing at their workplaces.
As well, the Federation of Trade Unions signed an agreement of cooperation with the Regional AIDS Centre. It aims to bring the two groups together, to reach out to working women and men in the Cherkassy region and, through the workplace, raise awareness about HIV prevention.
The leadership of the Cherkassy Regional Federation of Trade Unions made a huge difference in the success of the initiative. Petro Shevchenko, Head of the Federation, who is a health worker himself, has become a real leader in the HIV response in the world of work. “Trade unions consider HIV as a social and labour issue and address it in the context of protecting workers’ rights.
VCT on HIV is the only way for workers to know their HIV status and start necessary treatment in order to stay healthy and productive,” said Shevchenko at the launch event of the project. Employers’ organizations at the regional as well as national level also supported this effort through facilitating access to workplaces and promoting the scaling up of VCT@Work throughout the region.
Organizing VCT at workplaces is convenient for workers. It saves their time and costs, and lowers the barriers to taking the test. Personally, I was encouraged to note the change in the attitude of workers towards HIV testing. Initially, workers were apprehensive; anticipating discrimination in case they turned out to be HIV positive.
But after our combined efforts at raising awareness, the change was evident. Workers saw the benefits in knowing their HIV status earlier. At one of the VCT events, a worker told me, “I wanted to get tested but I couldn’t make up my mind to go to the AIDS Centre. Thanks to the VCT@Work initiative, I could take the test; and came to know that I am healthy.”
I feel encouraged at the success of our little effort in the Cherkassy region. We need to build on this positive beginning and expand the VCT@WORK initiative to other regions. I believe the lessons we have learned here it can be game changing in our approach to the AIDS response for Ukraine in coming years.