Commemorating 40 years of Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA

Nelson Mandela meets with APHEDA co-founder Dr Helen McCue in 1993, expressing gratitude for APHEDA and the Australian union movement for their support of South Africa’s struggle for democracy and freedom during the years of apartheid (1948-1994).

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, the global justice organisation of the Australian trade union movement, was established in 1984. Here’s how it started, and what it does.

In 1983, Australian nurse Helen McCue was working as a nurse educator with the World Health Organisation in the Middle East before being seconded to the United Nations Relief and Works Organisation (UNRWA) in Lebanon.

While working in refugee camps alongside nurses from Norwegian People’s Aid, the overseas aid arm of the Norwegian trade union movement, Helen was inspired by the solidarity of workers in Norway. She felt the Australian union movement could also make a difference in the lives of marginalised peoples around the world.

When Helen returned to Australia later that same year, she took a proposal to Cliff Dolan, the then President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

Inspired by the Norwegian People’s Aid example with its focus on skills training, Helen proposed establishing an international solidarity organisation in Australia. With Dolan’s support, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA (Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad) was established in 1984.

APHEDA’s commitment to democracy and global justice has spanned many movements and causes, from the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon to Cambodia, Vietnam, Timor Leste, the Thai-Myanmar border, Aceh and support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

In 1990, after being released from prison after 27 years, South African anti-apartheid activist and politician Nelson Mandela visited Australia. He thanked the Australian union movement for being one of the first groups to support the democratic movement. APHEDA was a leading agency in this support.

In a statement, Mandela said:“APHEDA has a long history of support for the anti-apartheid struggle. APHEDA’s development assistance programs have made a very significant contribution. Assistance is not only material, or helping realise the ultimate goal of freedom in South Africa –assistance is about people, about people in Australia caring enough about our people to contribute financially, to contribute their time, their skills and emotions. This is what sustains us. This is what is irreplaceable in human endeavour. This is the true meaning of solidarity. We thank you and the people of Australia, and will be eternally grateful for your magnificent contribution.”

Today, as the global justice organisation of the Australian union movement, APHEDA works to support stronger union and social movements in Southeast Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East, and financial support comes from individuals throughout Australia, the ACTU, Australian unions and workplaces, international grants as well as from the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
The IEU congratulates APHEDA on its inspiring tale of Australian workers uniting against injustice across the globe. The IEU is a long-time supporter of APHEDA:

Katie Camarena