People living with HIV (PLHIV) still have no specific protection against discrimination in any Jamaican legislation. This is most shameful after the recent adoption of the 2011 Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.
The charter saw an expansion of the right to equality and freedom from discrimination, but this expansion managed to exclude persons living with HIV. Discrimination on the basis of health status was not specifically constitutionally prohibited.
My organisation, the Jamaican Network of Seropositives (JN+), has been documenting reports of discrimination against PLHIV. Among the reports we have received, 16 people were denied health care, nine were forced to leave their homes and community, and eight were victims of physical violence.
Many of the PLHIV I work with have placed their hope in the long-anticipated Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which gives them some measure of protection from discrimination. Sadly, it has been a very long wait with no clear end in sight.
OSHA, as currently formulated in the bill before Parliament, prohibits certain instances of HIV workplace discrimination, i.e., discriminatory hiring and firing on the basis of living with or being affected by HIV. It curiously does not consider denial of promotions or workplace benefits on the basis of HIV status as ‘discriminatory conduct’.
While imperfect, the OSHA bill has immense potential for protecting PLHIV from harmful practices such as mandatory testing and unfair treatment in the workplace. The question is, what is the hold-up? Why can’t OSHA be debated and passed in Parliament with as much efficiency as anti-crime bills, for example?
In the long run, more needs to be done for PLHIV as far as law and policy reform, but currently, it represents a step in the right direction for protecting their rights. Consider the hardship faced by a young woman living with HIV, since unemployment is higher among young women who, having successfully been interviewed for a job as a data-entry clerk, now has to undergo a mandatory HIV test before her employment can be finalised.
She can either refuse to take the test and remain unemployed or be tested and brave the possibility of being denied the employment opportunity or being treated unfairly on the job.
For her, there is little to no legal recourse. She doesn’t merely benefit from OSHA, she needs it for her survival. Parliament has the lives of PLHIV in the palm of their hands. It is full time they do more to protect them.