Ugandan workers sue Chinese construction giant in HIV dispute
Employees who claim they were forced to take blood tests seek compensation after losing their jobs when they tested positive for the virus
When Kato was called into his manager’s office, the Ugandan driver assumed he would be sent on an errand, not be ordered to take an HIV test and lose his job when it came back positive, leading him to sue his Chinese employer for unfair dismissal.
The 45-year-old is one of two HIV-positive workers who went to court in June to demand compensation from their former employer, China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), in Uganda’s second high-profile Aids discrimination case in two years.
“[My manager] said: ‘If you don’t go for this test, you’ll be fired’,” said Kato, a father of three who declined to give his full name for fear of stigma.
“We had to go along with it because we were afraid of losing our jobs,” he added, describing how half a dozen employees were ferried to a clinic in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to have their blood tested.
Uganda’s high court will hear the case on August 16, in which the two plaintiffs are asking for 400 million Uganda shillings (around US$110,000) in compensation, after efforts to reach an out-of-court settlement failed.
The day after his results came back in March 2016, Kato said, his manager asked him to sign a resignation letter.
CCCC, one of the world’s largest businesses with a focus on infrastructure projects, denied the allegations.
“No employee has ever been coerced to take a medical check-up,” it said in court documents.
“Medical check-ups undertaken by the plaintiffs, if at all, were not calculated to determine their employment, but for their own health benefit.”
A lawyer for CCCC, which has three major road contracts with Uganda’s government, and a spokesman for the Uganda National Roads Authority declined to comment as the case is in court.
CCCC’s administration manager in Uganda, Hao Yunfeng, said in emailed comments that the company offers staff free, voluntary HIV tests.
The other plaintiff, a 27-year-old woman who asked to be identified as Alen, said she was fired after eight months cleaning at CCCC on a monthly salary of 300,000 Uganda shillings (US$83).
“You’re not supposed to treat people like that,” said Alen, who has been unable to find another full-time job since she was fired and struggles to support her six-month-old baby.
“For them, it’s as if HIV is like flu.”
CCCC said in its court submissions that Alen stopped coming to work after being warned about her performance.
Both plaintiffs are also suing for infringement of the right to privacy, saying that the clinic shared their test results with their managers, not them.
Eight other employees said, in affidavits supporting Kato and Alen, that their managers also forced them to take HIV tests, which proved negative.
Some 1.5 million of Uganda’s 40 million people are HIV positive and stigma is rife, with parliament in 2014 criminalising the intentional transmission of the disease.
Kato’s lawyer, Stephen Tumwesigye, said in emailed comments that the case highlights “glaring human rights violations that are perpetrated unabated” by Ugandan government contractors.
“We hope that in presenting this case before the court, many Ugandans will come out to report such violations,” he said.
A kitchen worker employed by China’s Sinohydro Corporation, which is building a dam on the Nile, lost an HIV discrimination case in 2016 when the Ugandan court ruled that its decision to transfer her to another department was legal.