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Tribute to Helen Kelly

Dr Jackie Blue

Wellington, Friday, October 14, 2016

We at the Human Rights Commission pay tribute to former CTU President Helen Kelly who died today.

We have lost a formidable human rights advocate whose courage and determination can be traced in the lives and rights of thousands of New Zealanders.

People like Helen Kelly who battle on behalf of others for pay equity, workplace safety and work conditions embody what it means to be a human rights advocate.

Ms Kelly recently spearheaded a successful nationwide campaign highlighting deaths and serious harm accidents – 900 between 2008 and 2015 that saw only 12 prosecutions. On International Workers Memorial Day 2015 she wrote: “An injured worker is an injured worker, an avoidable accident is an avoidable accident, an unsafe workplace is unsafe: Nobody should sacrifice their life for their livelihood. It’s that simple.”

Improving safety

Helen often said her job was a calling and an honour but the honour is all ours. Our lives are safer, fairer and better thanks to great New Zealanders like Helen Kelly

The following is an extract from my speech at the CTU Women’s Conference held in 2015.

I would like acknowledge a final inspirational woman here with us today, your very own Helen Kelly.

Helen, I salute you.

You are a battler for pay equity, workplace safety, decent work and conditions and above all justice for all workers.

Your involvement in these issues is deeply personal, genuine and it is clear you are there for the long haul.

You are not like a politician who makes an art of sweeping in, being seen, working the room, and then exiting. You are deeply committed to the people you serve.

I realised you would have been formidable in central body politics when I listened to a recent interview that you did with Katherine Ryan.

Hate Mails

In the interview, you reflected that years prior, after a particularly no win interview you received a huge amount of hate mail, which you were very proud of. Politics is not for the faint hearted and the skin of a rhinoceros is a prerequisite.

This showed me that you were so strong in your belief and convictions and you wouldn’t allow others opinions to deter you from your important work.

In the interview, you also reflected that though you have been diagnosed with a serious illness, you are living each day, not dying.

You stated that you continued to work because your job was your vocation, a calling, it was an honour, and there was much unfinished business.

You were at peace with accepting your own mortality as each of us here will have to do at some point in our lives. There is no escape from that.

Pillar of strength

When I worked as a breast physician, I met many, far too many, amazing women who had to do exactly what you are doing.

Privately I wondered if I could or would be as courageous as those women when my time came.

Helen, I know that all of us in this room draw strength from women like you who are steadfast in their convictions and living their lives with purpose and meaning despite difficult circumstances.

Impulsively I sent a message of support to you via Facebook and referred to the symbolic phrase, ‘putting on a hard hat,’ – a thought that has often helped me stay strong in tough times. I even offered to lend you my hard hat that I had bought off Trade Me. Afterwards I worried if I’d gone too far. I thought you might think I was a total flake.

But I was mightily relieved and reassured when you replied to me that you have your own ‘hard hat’ – your one is a Miner’s hat, mine a post-World War 2 Brodie Helmet.

Our hard hats are there, at the ready, when the going gets tough.

Helen, I absolutely support and share your vision of a modern union where there is a true partnership between business, workers and the Government.

You finished your interview saying “we don’t give up and we push back’.

We don’t give up and we push back.

That sums it up perfectly.

Jackie Blue is Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission based in Wellington.

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