A new government study has found that more than half of workers in Swaziland’s garment industry are living with HIV, and officials are realizing that the once-hailed promise of manufacturing employment has become a financial and medical nightmare for tens of thousands of Swazi women.
“HIV prevalence among factory workers is 50.3 percent,” said Nhlanhla Nhlabatsi, an epidemiologist with the Ministry of Health. Nhlabatsi presented the data last week as preliminary findings for Swaziland’s first Behaviour Sentinel Surveillance Report to be released in its entirety later in the year.
About 30,000 Swazis, mostly women, are employed in garment factories financed by Taiwanese investors and operated by managers from mainland China.
The survey also found that most factory workers were well informed about HIV/AIDS, and 90 percent of workers interviewed were aware of the female condom and other methods of preventing HIV.
Government officials will now begin investigating the gap between knowledge of HIV/AIDS prevention and workers’ susceptibility to HIV. The prevalence rate for textile industry employees is significantly higher than the 26 percent rate among sexually active adult Swazis.
“Women comprise the largest number of workers at the garment industry plants. They work long hours at wages so low some of them are known to turn to prostitution to support themselves and their families,” said Alicia Simelane, an HIV testing and counselling officer at the Matsapha Industrial Estate, where Swaziland’s industry is concentrated outside the commercial hub of Manzini.
The link between “sweatshop” wages and the risk of HIV has been known for years, but the statistical impact of the risk is only becoming apparent now.
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