Foreign HIV victims face a quiet struggle to work

STILL STIGMATIZED: Although public attitudes toward AIDS have improved, employment discrimination leaves many vulnerable to being fired or not hired to begin with

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sun, Dec 19, 2004 - Page 2

On a frigid afternoon last week, an AIDS-ravaged Thai woman named A-chian (阿千) struggled to get up from her plank bed at a halfway house, put on a cheap jacket and old sneakers, and get ready for six hours of waitressing in an a back-alley noodle stand nearby.

"Gotta go to work and make as much money as you can," she said in surprisingly fluent Taiwanese. Soon her lanky figure dissolved down the street in Gongguan, Taipei City.

A-chian's words are timely, given that she doesn't know how long she will keep her modest job before the disease catches up with her, or her employers find out she is HIV-positive and fire her.

"I know no one likes me, no matter how long I live here," she said. For her, the lack of acceptance is not so much because of her nationality as because of her HIV status.

A-chian's life in Taiwan is a sad footnote to a common immigrant story. As one of the estimated 300,000 foreign brides who have married Taiwanese husbands in search of a better life on foreign soil, A-chian flew from Bangkok 19 years ago to marry a man she had never met.

A few years later, she returned to Thailand to seek shelter after she gave birth to two children and ran away from her alcoholic husband. During that homecoming, she contracted HIV from her boyfriend. After his death, she came back to Taiwan and worked to raise her 3-year-old daughter in Thailand.

Rejected by her family and bereft of support, A-chian finally took refuge in a halfway home for people living with AIDS.

A-chian's case is not uncommon.

"A-chian is not the only foreign female patient we have taken in," said Nicole Yang (楊捷) the secretary general of Harmony Home Association. "There are many who are abandoned by their husbands because of their HIV status."

Currently, Taiwan's Center for Disease Control registered 492 HIV-infected foreigners living in Taiwan. 66 of them are foreign brides. 66 of them were deported back to their mother countries, and 66 families were thus shattered.

Helping immigrants like A-chian is a challenge facing Ivory Lin (林宜慧), secretary general of the civic group Persons with HIV/AIDS Rights Advocacy Association of Taiwan (PRAA). The fundamental obstacle, Lin said, is the government's neglect of basic human rights.

"The biggest problem is that while our country enshrines the value of human rights, we are actually deporting HIV positive immigrants once they are identified," Lin said.

Although health officials proposed to revise the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome Control Act (後天免疫缺乏症候群防治條例) so as to guarantee a fortnight stay for those infected with HIV, Lin doesn't think this revision will ease foreign spouses' dilemma. "A short-term stay permit doesn't solve anything. Not only will it create more problems for police and custom to chase them out of Taiwan -- it harms these wives and mothers even more when you give them false hope."

Compared to HIV-positive foreigners who have been deported, A-chian is lucky. Her 19-year-marriage has granted her Taiwan citizenship, which entitles her to cocktail drug therapy that is fully covered by national health insurance. A-chian only has to take her health insurance card with her to the hospital's pharmacist and she gets a free drug bag every month.

"There are few counties like Taiwan who spend NT$1 billion to offer free drugs to people with HIV," said Shih Wen-yi (施文儀), the Deputy Director of Center for Disease Control. On average, every Taiwanese only pays a paltry NT$40 to cover the medical expenses of about six thousand people afflicted by AIDS.

But foreign spouses still have to cope with other formidable problems facing every HIV patient in Taiwan. The most pressing problem is the denial of their right to work.

Because the AIDS Control Act does not ensure the right to work and doesn't stipulate any penalty for those who refuse to hire HIV-positive people, work discrimination has become a common practice here. Some state-run enterprises and government agencies require mandatory HIV blood tests which they justify as "precautionary measures."

Ivory Lin cited as examples of discrimination a Taipei police officer discharged in 2001, a health worker laid off in 2002, and an MRT driver who gave up his job under pressure.

Cases such as those highlight the need for government action to help protect the rights of those infected with AIDS, experts said.

"The government can redress the stigma that comes with AIDS," said Arthur Chen (陳宜民), the director of AIDS prevention and research center at the National Yang Ming University. "The government could introduce an anti-discrimination law."

A-chian's modest hope is to earn enough money to support herself. She waits on customers who come to enjoy a bowl of beef noodles, helps weaker patients in the halfway home, and sometimes allows herself the luxury of buying earrings in Gongguan night market. She lives quietly in Taipei City, quietly among us.