How a young nurse changed thousands of lives

Thanks to Working Life for permission to reprint the following article.

In 1983, a young Australian nurse named Helen McCue, a committed member of the then-Australian Nursing Federation, was working as a nurse educator with the World Health Organisation in the Middle East.

Returning to Australia later that year, she took a proposal inspired by her experience in the refugee camps to the then ACTU President Cliff Dolan.

Helen’s idea was for the establishment of an international solidarity organisation in Australia.

She had been inspired while working in the Palestinian refugee camps alongside nurses from Norwegian People’s Aid, the overseas aid arm of the Norwegian trade union movement. Impressed by their focus on skills training, Helen felt that the Australian union movement could also make a difference in the lives of workers and marginalised peoples around the world.

With Cliff Dolan’s support, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA was established in 1984.

Australian workers reaching out to the world

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA’s first projects worked in partnership with refugee communities in war-torn Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, and Lebanon, training local community members as ‘bare-foot doctors’ able to provide the simple and basic healthcare which can save thousands of lives of infants and nursing mothers.

These early projects underlined Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA’s commitment to a decent life for all and international solidarity through education and training, working in partnership with those whose rights to decent work, education, health and justice are restricted or denied.

It is this commitment that saw Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA move quickly to support anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, and contribute to the rebuilding of Cambodia, which had been devastated by three decades of conflict, including the killing of two million people by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.

Helen McCue (centre), pictured in 1993 with two of the Palestinian nurses she worked with in the refugee camps.

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA’s current program has grown to more than 60 projects in 16 countries including partnerships with Burmese refugees on the Thai-Burma border, agricultural skills training with Palestinian refugees, supporting the rural poor in Vietnam and Cambodia, vocational education in the Solomon Islands, union-building in Timor-Leste and Indonesia, women’s development throughout the world, and advocating for the protection of workers in South-East Asia from the scourge of asbestos.

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA is unique because we place workers’ rights at the centre of all our work. It is only when working women and men have education and skills, and can organise collectively to ensure safe workplaces and fair wages, that they will have the dignity of being able to feed, clothe and shelter their family and educate their children. Decent work with a fair, living wage is crucial to lifting living standards around the world.

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA also believes that the equality of women is essential for lasting change. The rights of women — particularly refugees, migrant workers and other marginalised groups — are a fundamental building-block of our work to improve women’s standard of living and increase their social and economic power.

30 years of helping workers improve their lives

For 30 years, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, on behalf of the Australian union movement, has played a crucial role in fighting for global social justice ─ for human rights, workers’ rights, self-determination, equality, freedom and democracy.

Over the course of 2014, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA will be celebrating its life-changing work, as well as looking at the stories of solidarity that make up its history and future.

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA has helped train more than 80,000 Cambodians since 1985, mainly women, in vocational skills, agriculture, forestry and fishery, women’s health, HIV and nutrition, as well as union-building and worker health projects in the informal economy and the garment industry – a sector in which workers have recently been killed for their demands for a living wage.

Since 1998, thousands of East Timorese people have been trained in literacy, tailoring and handicraft production, and carpentry, mechanical and agriculture training. Most importantly, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA — with the support of Australian unions and their members — helped establish and build the trade union movement in Timor-Leste’s fledgling democracy.

In countries like Vietnam and Laos, health and HIV training, vocational skills and the strengthening of workers’ rights at the enterprise level have been a feature of Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA’s work, as well as projects assisting trafficked women and providing livelihood skills training for young disabled victims of Agent Orange.

After three decades of standing with workers around the world striving for justice and safe and decent work, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA is continuing to deliver on the vision that first came to a young Helen McCue in the refugee camps of the Middle East. You can help by making a regular donation.

Working Life is a news, opinion and analysis website run by Australian unions to give you the other side of the story the big end of town doesn’t want you to hear. Each weekday, Working Life has fresh articles aimed to provoke, inspire or amuse everyone who shares the values and interests of Australian unions. Check it out at, where you can subscribe to the site. Working Life is also on Twitter at and Facebook at

Posted in: International, Interviews and Features

My trip with the Aussie Bangla Smile team

Today’s guest blogger is Enrolled Nurse Pia Buckingham, who has been nursing for 24 years. During that time Pia has worked in aged care, group homes for the intellectually disabled, home and community nursing. For the past 15 years she has worked in operating theatres, including 12 years at Nepean Hospital, now as a scrub and scout nurse. Pia completed a Perioperative Practice Instrument Nurse course in 2006 and in 2009 was awarded an Advanced Diploma in Perioperative Nursing.

In November 2011 I was privileged to be a member of the Aussi Bangla Smile team that travelled to Bangladesh to perform facial surgery on children and a few adults from remote villages. The team consisted of two surgeons, two anaesthetists, three scrub and scout nurses and three anaesthetic nurses. (The Aussi Bangla Smile Project involves a voluntary surgical team under the umbrella of Rotary International. The project carries out cleft lip/palate, burn contracture and birth defect corrective plastic surgeries in remote regions of Bangladesh.)

The 2011 team in Bangladesh. Pia is fourth from right.

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Posted in: Enrolled nurses, International, Nursing experiences
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My first nursing job

Today Ann-Marie remembers back to her first job in a nursing home as a 15 year old.

1965: I had just finished Junior (year 10) high school and entered the workforce. When I think back, what I remember most is the Vietnam War, which was on our TV sets every night as we ate dinner. All the young men were either in National Service or protesting the conscription call-up. The slogan that most epitomised the time was ‘All the way with LBJ’. As a teenager, the 1960s meant miniskirts, bikinis, ‘pot’ and the Pill promoting the fantasy of sexual freedom. Everyone owned a transistor radio and Beatlemania was at its height. Sputnik had heralded the space race and for the West this meant massive educational and social change to surpass Soviet ingenuity.

My first job hardly reflected this image of the ‘60s, for I entered the nursing workforce with all its rituals and tradition. At just 15, I was not old enough to start my general training, so I got a job as an assistant nurse in a convalescent home with some 30 residents, most of whom were demented women.

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Posted in: Nursing - Aged Care, Nursing experiences, nursing history

Continuing the campaign for ratios

The vote to endorse the 2014 claim for the NSWNMA Public Health System award finished last week and branches once again voted overwhelmingly in favour of continuing the campaign for ratios which began so strongly and successfully in 2010.​

In a short video below, Brett Holmes discusses the 2014 claim, which includes a reduction in the consecutive shifts a nurse can be rostered on for to a maximum of six. He also talks about the ongoing court battle with the O’Farrell government over paying the full 2013 wage increase (including superannuation) to NSW’s nurses and midwives.

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Posted in: NSWNMA, Ratios
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Grads need jobs!

The Federal Government has appointed an expert panel to review current regulations on Australian employers accessing skilled labour from offshore, including nurses and midwives.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation will be making a submission to the panel, focusing in particular on the high numbers of new nursing and midwifery graduates who have been finding it difficult to get work.

The ANMF wants to hear from recent graduates about their experiences.

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Posted in: ANMF, New graduates, Nursing students
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