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Harmony Day, celebrating diversity: Jagath's story

Jagath Bandara is a well-known AMWU organiser in Sydney and also a campaigner for the kind of tolerance he experienced here when he had to leave his beloved motherland of Sri Lanka due to political oppression between1987and 1990. “My concern is that politicians around the world have changed since then; there are some short-sighted people prepared to use the race card for power,” he said.

Jagath grew up at a time when a right-wing Government used the security forces ruthlessly against young left activists, shutting universities to stifle protests for a progressive and vibrant democracy. Up to 60,000 people were abducted and killed. He was part of a leftist youth movement which wanted to end race-based politics and to build solidarity among working people.

“Some of my closest friends were killed during this period, I didn’t want to leave but my parents were adamant I had to get out. They sent me out of the country,” Jagath said. From Singapore, he and four other young Sri Lankans had nowhere to go, so they crossed to Malaysia. A people smuggler promised to get them to Australia by boat, but they were robbed and abandoned in Java, Indonesia. Villagers sheltered them and helped them get to Jakarta, where they contacted the Australian Embassy with the support of an Indonesian friend who expected nothing in return. “The diplomats knew exactly where we had come from, the problems we’d faced and helped – that’s the difference now. We were given a three-week visa to enter Australia. I got a fair go when I arrived and the Government officials listened to my story and issued me with refugee status under the UN Convention .” Jagath worked in a five star hotel in Sydney and organised workers into a union, then joining what is now United Voice in 1997. He graduated under the ACTU Organising Works Program and worked for United Voicebefore joining the AMWU in 1997. 

“No matter where you are in the world, collective action is necessary. You can’t help and liberate people suffering by individuals acting alone. If you want a society based on equality and justice, you need progressive unionism. 

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