How a young nurse changed thousands of lives


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.

This was the beginning of APHEDA, Australia’s trade union international aid organisation. This is Helen’s – and APHEDA’s – story. Thanks to Working Life for permission to republish this article.

Helen 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.

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

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

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.

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.

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