UNISON stands against HIV stigma

Greater London region were proud to host a fringe event at National Delegate Conference on Wednesday 19 June. The fringe panel event was titled “Unionised Against HIV Stigma; Tackling HIV Stigma in Our Workplaces.”

This significant session, chaired by Anu Prashar, Co-chair of the regional LGBT+ Committee and LGBT+ Officer at Brent Local Government, brought together prominent voices to address the persistent issue of HIV stigma in workplaces. The panel featured Jo Galloway, Regional Secretary; Ant Babajee, HIV Activist and regional LGBT+ Committee member; and Katie Clark, Public Affairs and Partnership Manager at Terrence Higgins Trust, who is also a UNISON member.

The campaign, part of the Greater London Region’s work to mark the Year of LGBT+ Workers, underscores UNISON’s unwavering commitment to ensuring that all workers, irrespective of their HIV status, can work without fear, discrimination, or harmful attitudes. While HIV affects individuals across various demographics, it disproportionately impacts the LGBT+ community, making this campaign especially relevant.

Katie Clark emphasised the pivotal role UNISON members play in combating stigma, not only for their colleagues but also for patients and service users. As the largest union in the health sector, UNISON is uniquely positioned to challenge stigma and discrimination in all forms. Katie highlighted a key message: undetectable equals untransmissible (U=U), which is crucial in combating fear and encouraging treatment. It also forms part of THT’s campaign ‘2030: HIV Time’s Up!’ which aims to end all HIV transmissions in the UK by 2030.

Katie Clark addressing delegates as part of the panel.

Jo Galloway presented sobering statistics, noting that an estimated 106,890 people live with HIV in the UK.

“This number is not just a statistic. It represents individuals – our friends, colleagues, and family members,” she said.

Jo also pointed out that 32% of new diagnoses in the UK were among London residents, illustrating the Region’s particular vulnerability. Men who have sex with men and people of Black African ethnicity are disproportionately affected, often facing multifaceted discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, and HIV status.

The panel discussion also highlighted the critical issue of late diagnosis. 1 in 16 people in the UK are unaware of their HIV status, and in 2021, 56% of people from Black African ethnicity and 50% of women were diagnosed late. Late diagnosis can lead to health complications, emphasising the need for increased education and awareness about HIV testing and early treatment.

Ant Babajee shared his personal journey with HIV and the stigma he has encountered.

Ant started by saying; “I am living with HIV. Those five words still have the power to shock and can make people visibly recoil in horror. But those five words and the self-acceptance they represent also embody one of the most effective activist and personal empowerment movements we have ever seen.”

Ant recounted experiences of doctors expressing surprise at his diagnosis, telling him he ‘doesn’t seem like the sort of person’ to contract HIV. He emphasised that while many still view HIV as a ‘death sentence’, HIV today is treatable and preventable. With successful treatment, individuals with HIV can live as long as those without the virus.

Ant’s key message to delegates was clear: “We don’t want your pity. We want your compassion and respect. We deserve to have our dignity.”

Jo Galloway outlined actionable steps for activists to take back to their branches to support the campaign:

  • Apply your knowledge of representing members with any other disability to representing members with HIV. HIV is specifically mentioned under the Equality Act 2010 as being protected from the moment of diagnosis.
  • Publicise information and support in branch newsletters and circulars.
  • Hold an HIV Awareness briefing session.
  • Encourage your employer to adopt the HIV Confident charter once it is rolled out beyond the pilot phase.
  • Maintain confidentiality as you would with any other member queries and concerns; don’t let their HIV status become gossip.
  • Challenge outdated ideas and views around HIV where you can.
  • Familiarise yourself with UNISON guidance and ensure your employer is active in tackling HIV stigma and discrimination in all forms. Ensure policies are actively implemented and not just left to gather dust.

This panel event reaffirms UNISON’s dedication to tackling HIV stigma and fostering a workplace environment where everyone can feel safe and respected. By raising awareness and promoting understanding, we can collectively work towards a society free from discrimination and stigma.

Has your branch done work to tackle HIV stigma? Or are you keen to get involved in this campaign? Email Rosie Sammut r.sammut@unison.co.uk