Feature: A Labour of Love: Educating Workers About HIV and AIDS

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Project Coordinator in the Ministry of Labour, Rhonda Boucher (red shirt) conducting a mini survey on HIV, AIDS and other life threatening diseases with some of the female staff at B’s Bottling Depot. (A. Miller/BGIS)

"No rubbers, no ride yaah mi sistren, safe sex a whey mi strongly believe in" Frisco Kidd – Rubbers (1996)

As the two vehicle entourage drove slowly along the St. Thomas roadway with music blaring and a sea of red shirts, drivers peered from their vehicles, pedestrians gave a quick glance and employees and employers from nearby businesses took a quick break from work to gaze at this unfamiliar sight.

As one of the vehicles, a Transport Board bus, came to a halt at one of the businesses, workers were presented with memorabilia and information packages by volunteers. ??

However, this was not some new product promotion, media tour or cultural event. Rather, its purpose was even more significant and had implications for Barbados’ workforce.

Last Friday, January 18, marked the fifth year officials from the Ministry of Labour held the ???whistle-stop’ bus tour, which travels to businesses across the island ???spreading the word’ on safe sexual practices and healthy lifestyle choices.

Each year, the team of Ministry officials, peer educators and counsellors, led by Project Coordinator in the Ministry of Labour, Rhonda Boucher, and Unit Investigator, Marguerita Worrell, gather to undertake this outreach programme, which seeks to reduce, through education, the vulnerability of the local workforce to HIV, AIDS and other life-threatening diseases.

It is hoped that this sensitisation exercise would also guard against the incidence of stigmatisation and discrimination in the workplace against persons living with HIV.

As Government continues to tackle these challenges, officials have had to be creative in taking their messages to the various target audiences.

The Ministry of Labour has responsibility for ensuring the local workforce is well informed about issues related to such diseases, which could seriously undermine this country’s labour force and the way of life Barbadians have come to enjoy.

However, the challenge lies in being able to reach both employees and employers, who, because of job commitments, may be unable to take the time to access relevant information, or because the job may involve much travelling.

Thus, the bus tour was born. Instead of employees coming to the Ministry’s office at Warrens or any other central agency, the Project Unit team sought to take their messages ???on the road’ to reach those workers who may otherwise ???fall through the cracks’.

This year the tour made its way through the parishes of St. Thomas and St. Andrew where officials met, and spoke with employees and employers of several private businesses and government departments. ??

These were C O Williams Electrical Ltd., Mount Gay Distilleries, B’s Bottling Depot, the St. Thomas and St. Andrew Post Offices, Soil Conservation and the Belleplaine Police Station and Supermarket. The group also stopped at the A. Dacosta Edwards Primary School, where they made a special presentation to staff and students.

Workers at these locations were presented with information which the Ministry hopes would allow them to make more informed decisions about their lifestyle. There were also condom demonstrations and mini counselling sessions led by trained staff and volunteers.

Employers were presented with information packages containing HIV policy documents, pamphlets and posters. Information was also collected on policies and programmes within the organisation.

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Sharon Mayers of the Ministry of Labour (white shirt), speaking to some of the female staff at B’s Bottling Depot about safe sexual practices and healthy lifestyle choices.(A. Miller/BGIS)

Labour officials also took the opportunity to conduct a short survey with employees to gauge their level of knowledge about sexual health.

This survey, Ms. Boucher pointed out, would assist the Ministry in tailoring its programmes to better suit the needs of its target audience. In reflecting on the last five years of the initiative, the Project Coordinator hailed it as a success, adding that through the tour Ministry officials and volunteers have been able to interact with many workers who would not otherwise have been able to attend any of the sensitisation programmes organised by government.

In underscoring the need for such an initiative, Ms. Boucher said it could not be taken for granted that government’s messages on HIV and AIDS were making an impact, so such interactive sessions were crucial.

"Generally people will tell you that they have heard the messages about HIV and they know this and that. The message has been around for a long time and persons are pretty swamped, but when you go out and actually speak to people on a one-on-one basis, you realise sometimes that there are a lot of misconceptions, in terms of the message. So, we are always looking for new ways to reach persons," she explained.

While the labour official acknowledged that the Ministry’s HIV and AIDS programme had made several gains over the years in spreading the message of safe sexual practices, she, however, expressed concern that too many Barbadians suffer from what she has coined the "not me syndrome", that is, they do not believe they could be affected by HIV.

Ms. Boucher said: "The reasons for this differ, depending on the age groups. You find that older persons seem to think that this is a young people’s problem and that they are safe. Some other people just think that they are outside of the loop… In terms of our education level, we have had a lot of information on HIV. People know the basics, but in terms of applying it to themselves, that is a different story…They need to understand that as long as you are involved in sexual activity, there is a risk and they can contract HIV."

She continued: "One disturbing trend is that persons may get tested and once they realise all is well, continue with their risky sexual behaviour. They figure if they are tested and everything is ok, that gives credence to their risky lifestyle, but because you have not been caught, does not mean it cannot happen."

With regard to discussing sexual and reproductive health, Ms. Boucher noted that while Barbadians had become a lot more open about discussing such issues, there was still some way to go.

"When you speak to people or interact with them, you find that they are maybe not that comfortable receiving condoms. So, while you have some movement, the comfort level is not fully there yet… You find persons are a lot more comfortable speaking about HIV generally, but unless it is on a one-on-one basis, you don’t get the discussion about their sexuality, using condoms and so on. I think that is still a work in progress," the Project Unit head stated.

The HIV and AIDS educator believes that if Barbados is to maintain its strong and healthy population, then government would have to continue to be creative in bringing their safe sex messages and having outreach programmes within the community.

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A volunteer giving a??demonstration on proper condom use to the staff of BRC. (A. Miller/BGIS)????

But Ms. Boucher stressed that Barbadians must also take personal responsibility if any inroads are to be made to reduce the impact of HIV and AIDS on the society.

"You must take responsibility for your sexual actions. If we as individuals do not leave the responsibility for our sexual well-being in the hands of someone else, there would be less challenges in dealing with HIV and AIDS. You must learn to protect yourself if you want to live a longer and healthier life," she remarked.

For Ministry of Labour officials, the bus tour is not about employment numbers or statistics. Rather, it is about educating people and sensitising a society about the dangers of unprotected and risky sexual behaviour.

For them, one person contracting HIV is one person too many.

andre.skeete@barbados.gov.bb

Author: Andr?? Skeete
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