Working at the intersection--a story from Australia

Conceived by nurses in the hospital of a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, and inspired by Norwegian People's Aid, the international aid agency of the Australian trade unions was designed to give a genuine material base to solidarity with national liberation struggles. Bridging the difficult division in Australian labour politics between the Catholic Right and the social democratic and pro-Moscow Lefts, Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad (now Union Aid Abroad, APHEDA) was able to channel funds from unions and the Australian government to agriculture, health, and vocational training projects in southern Africa, Eritrea, Palestine, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Kanaky. Unlike most counterpart organisations in Europe and the USA, its earlier partners were rarely trade unions. In the last decade, emphasis has turned to work with trade unions: on gender equality, literacy, cooperatives, HIV, and occupational and environmental health. Only recently has APHEDA directly supported trade union training in Cambodia, East Timor, and Indonesia, under pressure from Australian unions, who see workers' rights in neighbouring countries as crucial to their own fate. Yet unions in advanced capitalist countries don't spontaneously understand the humanitarian and development needs of countries, such as Papua New Guinea, where waged workers are a small minority of the population. Unionisation is only one part of the solution. The April 2000 Durban congress of the ICFTU called for trade unions to `organise the unorganised', such as informal-sector workers, and to build alliances with NGOs and civil society around shared values. As a trade union NGO, APHEDA is located in the middle of a challenging intersection. Mandated to educate Australian workers on globalisation issues, APHEDA finds itself often more partisan than other international development NGOs in Australia, sometimes more circumspect. With reactionary national governments since the mid 1990s, attacks on union rights, and the increasing share of the Australian aid budget delivered through/to high-profit companies, APHEDA faces decisions about its independence, alliances, direction, and sustainability.