KHOPOTSO: Wits University’€™s Business School conducted a study of peer educators from five large companies involved in the mining, retail, finance and the auto manufacturing sectors. The companies have a workforce of over120 000. Peer educators total 1780. Researchers in the study, released today (Friday, 10/03/06) won’€™t divulge the identities of the companies involved.

Dr DAVID DICKINSON: One of the conditions of the research was that we wouldn’€™t name the individual companies’€¦

KHOPOTSO: That’€™s Dr David Dickinson, a Senior Lecturer on HIV/AIDS in the workplace at Wits Business School and author of the report. The study first tried to establish who the peer educators are in the workplace. It’€™s important that peer educators are similar to the workers they educate and work with, and the study found that mostly, they are. But Dickinson notes two striking differences to the typical profile of the workforces in the five companies that he researched.

Dr DAVID DICKINSON: African women are clearly over-represented as peer educators compared to their profile in the work-force’€¦

KHOPOTSO: He draws parallels between workplace practices and the reality within society.

Dr DAVID DICKINSON: There’€™s two obvious explanations that one would follow. The first is that we do know that Africans in general are bearing the brunt of this epidemic at this point in time’€¦ But, the over-representation was far greater. We’€™re talking about over a 100% over-representation, and that certainly doesn’€™t match the prevalence statistics that we know by race. The next explanation is, really, that we know in society there’€™s a gendered division of concern’€¦ What we see here is that the gendered concern has been taken from the home into the workplace along with peer education.

KHOPOTSO: The second difference he noted was the following:

Dr DAVID DICKINSON: An almost total absence of top and senior management amongst the ranks of peer educators. Now, we’€™re not talking about a large number of people here. But, symbolically, it’€™s very important that if peer education is a response of the workforce to the epidemic that managers are really in the thick of it’€¦ The fact is there were no top managers who were peer educators. And a very, very small number of senior managers were peer educators.

KHOPOTSO: A complex overlap of race and seniority, it would seem, play a role in determining who becomes involved in peer education in the workplace. The problem brought about by seniority, the report found, even extends to lower management of supervisory level.

Dr DAVID DICKINSON: Supervisors are chasing production. Their priority is not to get the workforce to sit down and talk about HIV/AIDS’€¦ And, often, they’€™ve been neglected in the past and left out of peer education programmes. I think they must be brought in. And, also, the peer educators need to be given official recognition. And that may mean saying that a percentage of their work time is to do peer education ‘€“ not to do it in snatched moments, but to actually have that time. And then, the supervisors have to recognise that and to facilitate those processes.

KHOPOTSO: Dr Dickinson stresses that the role of peer educators in the workplace is extremely important and can be demanding.        

Dr DAVID DICKINSON: The work consists, typically, of giving an educational input at a team meeting, say, once a week or once a month, it depends. But, also, very much, once they’€™re known to their fellow employees, to give informal help through one-on-one discussions, and so on. And that can be an enormous burden’€¦ You’€™ve got people who are HIV positive disclosing to you, for example’€¦ It is a lot of work and I think these are actually quite amazing people’€¦

KHOPOTSO: He adds that peer education work is voluntary and in order to function at their best the volunteers need support.

Dr DAVID DICKINSON: First of all, they need recognition by the company ‘€“ that this is an important role. Secondly, they need time ‘€“ you can’€™t expect people to carry this burden, additionally to their normal work loads ‘€“ a proportion of that time. They need a formal opportunity provided by the supervisors to talk to their co-workers. They also need emotional support ‘€“ they’€™re dealing with some very heavy stuff, both HIV/AIDS, but also, other social issues in South Africa, such as relationship abuse, and so on’€¦ And, of course, they also need the materials, the information and the resources to run education and training programmes.

KHOPOTSO: Brad Mears, spokesperson for the South African Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, says that the report’€™s findings have major implications for South African companies. Dr Dickinson says that there is still scope to improve the profile of peer educators in the workplace and to change the conditions under which they work.

Dr DAVID DICKINSON: We’€™ll be moving forward in a participatory process involving peer educators, involving managers, involving unions to operationalising some of these findings and providing guidelines for workplace peer educators.                

Click  here to downlaod the  Workplace HIV/AIDS Peer Educators in South African Companies

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