KAMPALA, Uganda – After three years of unemployment, Alen*, 27, was relieved to land a job.
She was working as a cleaner for a Chinese state-owned construction giant, China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), which has been awarded three multimillion-dollar road contracts by the Ugandan government. Her job involved working long, physically grueling days for only 300,000 Ugandan shillings ($83) per month.
“[But] I said, ‘I need the money’,” says Alen.
Only eight months into the role, however, she was dealt a double blow. First, she discovered she was HIV positive, after CCCC allegedly forcibly tested her and nine other workers for the infection. Then, she and a male colleague were dismissed over their HIV status, according to the lawsuit the two have launched against the company.
Court documents say that in 2016, Alen, the male plaintiff and several other CCCC employees were “abruptly” taken by company representatives to a Kampala clinic to be forcibly tested for HIV. A manager “insisted that if they refused to undergo the tests, they would be terminated from employment,” it says in the documents.
“Because I wanted to keep the job, I said, ‘Let me test,’” Alen said.
According to the documents, the clinic never gave the employees their test results, and instead breached confidentiality by disclosing them directly to the office manager. The company unsuccessfully attempted to make workers sign resignation letters the next day, then fired them when they refused, according to the plaintiffs’ statements.
A study by the NGO National Forum of People Living with HIV/AIDS Networks in Uganda published in 2013 revealed that 23 percent of HIV-positive respondents said they had lost jobs or income over their status.
Salome Atim, a project officer at the forum, said there have been “cases of the hotel industry [and] catering services sacking or forcing [employees] to test” for HIV.
“There are reports of teachers being sacked from work because of their HIV status, and private companies forcibly screening their employees and using that to lay off staff under the guise that they are not able to efficiently work,” she said.
Young Women at Greatest Risk
Uganda has made progress on HIV/AIDS, with prevalence rates dropping from 15 percent in the 1990s to 7.3 percent today. Nevertheless, there are 1.5 million people currently living with HIV in the country. The virus disproportionately affects young women, with 570 young women aged 15 to 24 contracting HIV every week, according to UNAIDS.
Asia Russell, executive director of HIV/AIDS advocacy group Health GAP, says, “Women are at greater risk of discrimination than men, first because they are more likely to know their status, they seek testing more often, and they are also exposed to opportunities for testing more often through prenatal care.”
Ugandan laws protect people from forced HIV testing, results disclosure and workplace discrimination. But Dorah Musinguzi, executive director of the Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS (UGANET), says most people with HIV will suffer violations in silence. “Going to court is exposing their status, and [there is] trauma that comes with it,” she said.
Emigrant Doctors Face Forced Tests
Ugandan medics who will be sent to Libya through a controversial deal with local labor ministry-backed recruitment firm told News Deeply that they had been made to take HIV tests.
One male doctor, who asked not to be named, said, “At [the company’s] offices they bring a doctor, he takes your blood, and they actually don’t even tell you [beforehand] what they’re going to test for. But when you ask the doctor, he tells you, ‘Hepatitis B and HIV.’”
Uganda’s labor minister Janat Mukwaya confirmed that the company, Middle East Consultants Limited, does test for HIV. “They do HIV testing because we can’t afford to export people who are sick, because it’s very costly,” she told News Deeply.
UGANET says HIV testing as a precondition for employment amounts to discrimination, violates individuals’ legal rights to equal treatment and stigmatizes HIV-positive people. News Deeply asked MEC and Mukwaya repeatedly about the allegations that their HIV tests are illegal, but both refused to comment.
Olivia Kugonza, 36, said she was let go from her job as a kitchen helper for the Chinese firm Sinohydro, even though she had “energy and was willing to work.”
Kugonza claims she was forcibly tested for HIV, along with about 13 other women. Five of them, including Kugonza, were revealed to be HIV positive and were fired. She took Sinohydro to court last year, but lost and is now appealing the ruling in Uganda’s high court.
“I don’t have a job,” said Kugonza, a mother of three who says she can no longer afford to pay her children’s school fees.
Jinwei Qu, head of general administration for the Sinohydro Corporation Limited Karuma Hydropower Project, said the company denies the allegations and has measures in place to prevent HIV/AIDS discrimination.
Alen and her former coworker, meanwhile, will return to the civil division of Uganda’s high court on August 16 for mediation.
Alen still hasn’t found a new full-time job, and is struggling to support her baby. It was only when a law firm approached her earlier this year that she gathered up the courage to take CCCC to court.
“I’m very brave to tell them that I didn’t test myself, they’re the ones [who did it],” said Alen. She is demanding 400 million Ugandan shillings ($110,560) in compensation.
In court documents, CCCC denies all allegations, but say if any testing was done, it was for workers’ own benefit. They say before being fired, Alen had received “several warnings about her performance.” The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Stephen Tumwesigye, denies this, saying the case is one of “blatant discrimination.” CCCC lawyer George Omunyokol said he could not comment while the case was in court.
Russell of Health GAP believes the Ugandan government should be “aggressively enforcing” anti-discrimination laws to protect HIV-positive people, including “young women desperate for employment.”
“Instead there is a growing trend of employers – foreign and national – violating Ugandans’ rights, seemingly with impunity,” she said.
For Alen, the case isn’t simply about compensation.
“I need them to know you’re not supposed to treat people like that,” she said.
“They need to apologize.”
*Name has been changed.