A special Workers’ Memorial Day tribute in Palmerston North to the late Helen Kelly drew a sizeable lunchtime gathering to the Fitzroy St monument.
Kelly, a former Council of Trade Union president who died of lung cancer in October 2016 aged 52, was remembered during the annual international day on Friday, which is dedicated to workers killed, injured or made ill at work.
A plaque in her honour was unveiled in the city by her husband Steve Hurring and son Dylan Kelly.
Hurring described his wife as a tireless worker who not only inspired those she worked with, but who also encouraged and inspired them to speak out on issues – among them workers’ rights, and medical marijuana.
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“We’re very humbled and honoured on Helen’s behalf that Manawatu decided to dedicate its Workers’ Memorial Day to [her]. It’s a testament to how highly regarded Helen was, along with her work in the cause of workers’ health and safety,” Hurring said.
He remembered standing alongside her on the picket line during the 2011 CMP meatworks lockout in Marton.
The simple plaque, installed on the memorial stone at Memorial Park with the help of the Palmerston North City Council, was inscribed with the words: “We remember Helen Kelly, 1964 – 2016, a champion of workers’ health and safety”.
Kelly’s son Dylan said his mother would be the first to say that the things she did were not about her.
“Her legacy was about empowering people and showing people what they were capable of.”
The permanence of the memorial would have been a marker to his mother of how successful she had been in encouraging people to fight for their rights and for what they needed, he said.
Other speakers including Public Service Association Manawatu union organiser John Shennan, bishop emeritus Peter Cullinane, mayor Grant Smith, and Labour’s Workplace Relations and Safety spokesperson, Palmerston North MP Ian Lees-Galloway, all alluded to the unacceptably high death and injury rate in New Zealand workplaces.
During two weeks of this month seven Kiwi workers had died on the job, bringing the year’s total workplace deaths so far to 10.
On average 47 workers had died at work each year in New Zealand since 2011, with 57 in 2013, and 49 last year. The bulk of the fatal accidents were in agriculture, with construction, forestry, along with transport and warehousing, also posting high totals.
Since 2011, 22 workers in Manawatu – Whanganui had lost their lives while at work.
Information provided by the unions said the annual social and economic costs of deaths, injuries and ill health arising from workplaces was estimated to be $3.5 billion, which did not include the emotional toll on families and co-workers.
Lees-Galloway said New Zealand’s workplace safety record compared poorly with other OECD countries, and that Kelly had made a valuable contribution to Labour’s forthcoming workplace relations policy.
During a song performed by The Brazen Hussies choir, those attending the service were invited to place small pieces of coal from the Pike River mountain range on the memorial stone.