Sawmill workers' advocate Joe Harawira dies

2:13 pm on 10 January 2017

The trade union movement is mourning the loss of a man who battled for 30 years on behalf of former sawmill workers who were exposed to dangerous chemicals on the job.

A portrait of Joe Harawira the Co-ordinator of Sawmill Workers Against Poisons - at the Ngati Awa Community Health Centre

Sawmill Workers Against Poisons co-ordinator Joe Harawira at the Ngāti Awa Community Health Centre in June 2016. Photo: RNZ/Ian Telfer

Joe Harawira, who was in his early 70s, was a former sawmill worker himself - and fought tirelessly for recognition of the health effects on those exposed to the chemicals.

He recovered slowly from near-total paralysis in the mid 1990s, which he was sure came from toxic chemical poisoning at the old Whakatane Mill, where he worked for 29 years.

"Joe was relentless in his pursuit for justice for ex-sawmill workers who were exposed to pentachlorophenol (PCP), a deadly chemical used in New Zealand timber processing for years," Māori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell said.

Mr Harawira's campaigning eventually saw the government commit to providing dedicated health support to the workers.

It also saw local councils commit to cleaning up the toxic sites where the chemicals were dumped.

Council of Trade Unions Vice-President Māori Syd Keepa said Mr Harawira passed away yesterday morning.

He was hugely respected wherever he went, he said.

"He worked day in and day out for sawmill workers who were exposed to dangerous chemicals on the job.

"Joe and the team at SWAP [Sawmill Workers Against Poisons] helped rip the lid off one of the worst workplace disasters in New Zealand history," Mr Keepa said.

The Māori Party said Mr Harawira, a son of Ngāti Awa and Ngāi Te Rangi, would be lying in the whare tipuna o Toroa at Pūpūāruhe Marae in Whakatāne from today.

"Our love and sympathies are extended to his beloved wife, Pare, and their tamariki, mokopuna, whānau katoa," Mr Flavell said.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs