HIV/AIDS threatens construction industry

01 December 2008

A compulsory, industry-wide initiative needs to be adopted by the South African construction industry to fight against rising HIV/AIDS prevalence among its workers.

This was recommended by UCT researchers in a peer-reviewed paper, which used data collected in tests on over 10 000 construction workers from 55 companies nationwide.

The paper, titled HIV/AIDS in the South African Construction Industry: an empirical study, is the result of a collaboration with UCT alum Harry Lake of CareWorks, a managed-healthcare company, who provided the data for analysis.

Contributor: Harry Lake of CareWorks provided data for the UCT paper on HIV/AIDS in the construction industry.

"Because of the male-dominated, contract-driven and mobile nature of the industry, companies can easily take the view that this is not their concern, but this is a major issue in the SA construction industry," says Lake. "In some areas, over half the workers are HIV positive."

UCT collaborators were Professor Paul Bowen of the Department of Construction Economics and Management in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, Professor Rob Dorrington and Sarika Besesar of the Centre for Actuarial Research, and Greg Distiller of the Department of Statistical Sciences in the Faculty of Commerce.

Bowen explains that the paper is an extension of an earlier research paper he had co-authored with colleague Dr David Root and research assistant Ingrid Meintjes, titled HIV/AIDS in the South African Construction Industry: Understanding the HIV/AIDS discourse for a sector-specific response. The paper noted the industry's "fragmentation" and "lack of economic leadership", which "resulted in a failure by the construction industry to address the disease with the sense of urgency it requires".

Master's student Sarika Besesar read the report and approached Bowen for help with her thesis.

Bowen is now undertaking a new research project based on a suggestion by Harry Lake, who has encouraged him to look at construction companies that are actually doing something about the problem, and to examine the effect of HIV/AIDS intervention.

"The first paper was an overview of the situation and existing policy," says Bowen, "and the second is a detailed analysis of the available data, on which we based our recommendation for an industry-wide response to address the problem.

"The study shows that if a construction company assumes a role in managing the problem it can be beneficial to the 'triple bottom line' (economic, social and environmental) of the company." The intention is to study different organisations where treatment has or has not been implemented, to see the effect on each company's triple bottom line.

The hypothesis is that HIV/AIDS treatment within organisations makes good business sense.

The authors argue that the construction industry should initiate programmes, funded by levies, to educate, test and treat its workers.

They note that the industry is facing several opportunities, including the housing crisis and the 2010 World Cup.

"However," they warn, "the risk is considerable that the high HIV/AIDS prevalence rate will hinder the growth and sustainability of the construction industry, resulting in consequences that will be felt not only by the construction industry, but by the wider South African economy as well."

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