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Tribute to Pekka Aro

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12 August, 2005ICEM News release No. 06/2003

Pekka Aro, a senior official of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and past deputy general secretary of the ICEF - forerunner of the ICEM - died on Saturday 5 April in a Beijing hospital of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), at the tragically young age of 52.

Pekka Aro
photographed in 1988 as
ICEF Deputy General Secretary

After working for the Finnish Glass and Porcelain Workers' Union and the Paper Workers' Union, he distinguished himself in the international trade union movement. He became Deputy General Secretary of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy and General Workers' Unions (ICEF) in 1984 and served in that position until 1989. During this time he was a major motivator in the establishment the joint Working Party on Occupational Health and Safety involving the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the International Trade Secretariats (ITS - now known as Global Union Federations; GUF). The Working Party has since gone from strength to strength and is now a well-established annual event that has broadened its membership to include health, safety and environmental activists from around the globe.

An author of numerous articles and books, Pekka also played a crucial role in putting together and leading the ICFTU/ICEF investigative mission to Bhopal, India, in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic chemical release from the Union Carbide plant in that city. The resulting ICFTU/ICEF 'Trade Union Report on Bhopal' subsequently came to be recognised as one of the most thorough reports on the disaster ever produced. The report and its findings were in large part responsible for the development of the ILO Convention on the Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents. Mike Wright, Director of Health, Safety and Environment at the United Steelworkers of America, principal author of the Bhopal Report and follow-on chair of the ICFTU/ITS Working Party, on hearing of Pekka's death said: "Pekka combined vision with organisation and absolute integrity with a love for working people. He died on a mission to improve the lives of Asian workers. We will miss him terribly."

During his tenure at the ICEF, Pekka was personally responsible for overseeing the effective introduction of new technology - long before its importance had been recognised by the rest of the international trade union movement, and long before the internet became a reality.

In 1992 Pekka joined the International Labour Orgnisation (ILO) as a Brussels-based specialist on workers' activities. A year later he was in Budapest busy developing the ILO's work in Central and Eastern Europe in order to assist unions in that region with the enormous challenges of political, economic and social transition. In 1998 he joined the ILO's Employment Department, where he was responsible for its skills, knowledge and employability programme until his untimely death.

In paying tribute to Pekka's memory, ICEM general secretary, Fred Higgs, said that: "Pekka will be remembered by many people for many things. From the perspective of the ICEM, he will be particularly remembered as someone with a vision of a modern, effective organisation and the tenacity to make it happen. Pekka had a strong sense of international solidarity and great respect for different cultures. At this time all our thoughts are with his family".

In a letter of condolences to his family, ICFTU General Secretary Guy Ryder recalled Pekka's "Outstanding contribution to improving the lives of working people. Pekka Aro worked tirelessly for those most in need of his special talents. He always remembered his roots in the trade union movement, and his energy, good humour and commitment to building a better world will be sadly missed by all those who had the privilege of knowing and working with him".

Pekka's many friends around the world are united in their sorrow for a life cut short in tragic circumstances. He is survived by his wife Ritva and three children, Eemili, Pilvi and Oskari.