But while the other successful candidates were rejoicing, he was very troubled. Before being hired on, he had to undergo a physical screening. The checkup form passed out at the designated hospital included a category for human immunodeficiency virus.
Jeong is HIV-positive.
“I had no idea they would do that kind of testing before hiring,” he recalled. “At the hospital, they told me the company insisted on it.”
What the affiliate did was illegal. Article 8, Item 1 of the AIDS Prevention Act, enacted to protect the rights of HIV-positive individuals, states that those performing physical examinations may not notify anyone but the examinee of the test results. Those who violate the law are subject to up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 3 million won (US$2,770).
On the advice of a lawyer, Jeong sent an anonymous statement of opinion to the hospital. The hospital was unaware that it was even illegal to tell a company the results of an individual’s physical screening. In the end, the affiliate conducted all examinations except for an HIV screening. Jeong passed, but his worries remain.
“Even if I make it through one year, there are going to be workplace screenings,” he said. “Every time we have one, I’m going to have to worry about whether they’re going to find out I’m infected.”
HIV-positive people are demanding guarantees on their right to work ahead of World AIDS Day on December 1. The HIV-positive population in South Korea nearly doubled between 2006 and 2011, rising from 4,500 to 8,500. More than half of these people are in their twenties or thirties - right when they are finding employment. But many are giving up on the possibility of a career and resigning themselves to poverty.
Physical screenings for new and existing employees are the major stumbling block. HIV status is not part of the general health screening data that employers have to provide for their workers. It is typically included in hiring tests and workplace screenings only when the company demands it or the hospital offers it as a courtesy. Occasionally, this means that people find out about infections they never knew they had, and end up being summarily ejected from the company.
While most of the public view AIDS as a fearsome contagion, its actual transmissibility is very low. The rate of transmission is on the order of one in a thousand even for unprotected intercourse. And with an 82.2% survival rate, HIV-positive individuals can work freely with regular treatment.
“As treatment methods have developed, other countries have come to see AIDS as a manageable chronic ailment like high blood pressure or hepatitis,” explained Inha University Medical School professor Lee Hun-jae. “Its medical severity is roughly equivalent to diabetes. It poses no problem to working at a company.”
According to Lee, company health procedures that “weed out” HIV-positive employees who are healthy enough to work are merely creating discrimination and stigma.
“A,” 46, who until just a few years ago was working at a mid-sized company in Seoul, was summoned to human resources repeatedly after a regular workplace screening. Having learned that A was HIV-positive, the team said that the health screening “turned up something that is not suited to our work.”
A quit, but had no family to depend on. Treatment costs come out A’s basic livelihood security benefits. The drugs are free for those on basic livelihood security, but once a person starts receiving benefits, the chance of returning to work slips farther out of reach.
The number of HIV-positive beneficiaries like A rose from 962 to 1,210 in the three years between 2008 and 2011. They represent more than 14% of South Korea‘s HIV-population. For the past three years, the government’s annual budget to support HIV-positive individuals in finding jobs has remained stuck at 80 million won (US$73,800).
Gwon Mi-ran of Nanuri Plus, an AIDS human rights advocacy group, said people with HIV end up stuck in a vicious cycle as long as society does not guarantee them the opportunity to work.
“Guaranteeing the right to work is a minimal requirement for HIV-positive people whose lives and finances have hit rock bottom because of the social stigma,” she added.