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PSI mourns former General Secretary, Hans Engelberts

13 April 2015
Hans Engelberts, PSI General Secretary, 1981 – 2007
It is with great sadness that PSI has learnt of the premature death on Sunday 12 April, of former General Secretary, Hans Engelberts, at the age of 71.

Elected at PSI’s 22nd World Congress in Singapore in December 1981, Hans was never opposed and was re-elected several times until he retired in 2007, at the Vienna Congress celebrating PSI’s 100 years of existence, after serving for more than 26 years as PSI General Secretary.

A dynamic and visionary leader, Hans led the organisation through many world-shaking events during his mandates, building up the organisation by more than 10 million members and reaching an impressive 20 million by the time of his retirement.

“Hans was a genuine man from the working class, by nature allergic to injustice. Hans was a passionate character, sometimes tough, but always on the side of progressive movements and ready to support democratic unions around the world. When travelling these last years, there has not been a place in the world where PSI affiliates have not asked me for news of Hans and I know many of them were still in contact with him. He was a great internationalist and unionist and we honour his legacy in PSI”, says current PSI General Secretary, Rosa Pavanelli.

Hans was born in 1943 in the Netherlands. He started working at the age of fifteen as a pantry boy on a sea-going vessel. A self-educated man, he took night school courses and a state examination for university entrance, after which he followed courses in economics and law. He had a natural flair for languages and was fluent in English, French, German and Spanish as well as his native Dutch.

He was an active trade unionist, in his jobs with the Chamber of Commerce in The Hague and then from 1976 to the end of 1981 when he was a national officer of the Dutch Public Service Workers Union, Abvakabo, in charge of negotiations for postal workers.

Defending workers' rights in South KoreaHis dynamism and untiring devotion to defend workers’ rights were reflected in the many missions he undertook, visiting imprisoned trade unionists in Turkey and South Korea as well as meeting and lobbying governments in person for the release of those prisoners. Hans was also a strong supporter of PSI’s South African affiliates and worked closely with them to bring an end to apartheid.

Hans was also determined to see PSI expand its position in the trade union world and was a strong promoter of global unionJuan Somavia, ILO Director General, greets Hans Engelbertsfederations working together on common issues especially relating to the public sector. Early in his mandate, PSI moved headquarters from London to its current location on the outskirts of Geneva, not far from the UN agencies, in particular the ILO.

Hans was instrumental in promoting women's worker rights and the first PSI World Women’s Conference was held in 1984 in New York, following which the current PSI World Women’s Committee was established. His pioneering support for LBGTI workers is also well worth mentioning, and that work continues today.

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, during PSI’s 24th Congress in Zimbabwe, and the opening up of the former USSR resulted in a dramatic growth in membership as old and new unions from the former Soviet bloc poured into PSI. Hans actively promoted bringing in the old unions from Central and Eastern Europe as well as working with the new ones.

In 1993, when the European Union was created, a small office was opened in Brussels to monitor and work closely with the EU, which then became the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU). Hans then pursued the regionalisation process, ensuring a PSI presence in other PSI regions and making PSI a truly global organisation.

It would be impossible to list all of Hans’ achievements during his trade union career. There are countless stories and anecdotes about him, which will be told and retold for many years, for Hans was a convinced trade unionist and a fine human being.

His death is a personal blow to many people around the world, to the workers and unionists in public services, to the staff who worked with him for many years and to the organisation he helped to build to its present strength.

We offer our sincere condolences to his family at their most tragic loss. Hans will be sorely missed and the international trade union community will remember his name for years to come.

Share your memories and stories of Hans or express your sympathy and condolences: communications@world-psi.org. We will compile and forward them to his family. 

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I was fortunate to have known Hans since his election as General Secretary of PSI. The traits mentioned by Jürgen were already clearly visible in the early 80
's. He was a good trade unionist who showed his great respect for people by speaking frankly and directly. Like others, I had disagreements with Hans from time to time, but, in all the years that I knew him, he never stabbed me in the back. He was a leader, but one who understood that it was the organisation that was important. In discussions with other Global Unions, including collective ones, he contributed many ideas and was willing to cooperate but, at the same time, he vigorously defended PSI and public services. The autonomy of GUFs was precious and he understood that it was an essential part of free trade unionism at the international level. Hans marked PSI, but also the post-War history of our broader movement.

And now, the end is here/ And so you’ve faced the final curtain.

You did what you had to do/ And saw it through without exemption.

What is a man, what has he got?/ If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels;/ And not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows you took the blows/ And did it your way!

Thank you for the privilege to work with you, to learn from you, to respect you, to hear you sing this wonderful song that defines you so well and to step along the same way with you, together with our colleagues and friends, for some of the best years in my life! We already miss you!

The sad demise of Hans it's a great loss to the working class in General and public services Employees in particular. We Mumbai Municipal Employees Federation (MMKM) COMDOLE THE SAD DEMISE OF HANS
Prakash Devdas

It is with great sadness that we at Kommunal learned of the loss of Hans Engelberts. Hans was a man of outstanding energy and commitment who tirelessly defended the cause of public sector workers all over the world. He was instrumental in establishing respect and recognition for the importance of the public sector and public services as the foundation of free and equal societies, and strong, modern economies.

Hans turned PSI into a democratic, modern and vital federation of great importance both for affiliates and for the international trade union movement. He had a remarkable ability to quickly and fully comprehend the importance of different issues like gender equality, support for LGBT workers and how to bring in unions from Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall. Hans was also in the forefront when it came to defend workers’ rights in repressive countries.

Hans Engelberts’ courage and dedication, as well as his profound and steadfast convictions, deserve our deepest esteem and respect. His struggle for labour and trade union rights and his leadership qualities during his 26 years as General Secretary of PSI will remain examples for us.

Annelie Nordström, President of Kommunal
Ylva Thörn, President of PSI 2002-2010, former President of Kommunal

There was something about Hans that endeared Australian Public Sector Unionists to the cause he represented, though, sometimes I think he might have had second thoughts about his remarkable achievement of gaining 120, 000 extra Australian members and the rebuilding of our public sector union involvement in the "international " the PSI). Hans was a big man. Big on solidarity. Big on life. Big on compassion. My union liked him from the first day he walked into our office in early 2000's! By lunchtime that day he was on the platform speaking at a massive union demonstration against our Govt.'s cuts to workers compensation. A great cheer went up as the "International Unionist" lambasted a Labor Government against their plans. Hans was not timid. Hans was not fearful. Hans won our commitment. We'll miss you Brother! Too early taken from us. David Carey

I worked with Hans on the 1984 PSI Women's Conference, along with Gerd Nyberg from Kommunal and Carol O'Clerican from AFSME. Hans was a strong supporter of equality rights for workers. A gifted politician, he used his skills to promote the growth of public sector unionism internationally. He will be missed.

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