Auret van Heerden began his career in labor and human rights as a young student in apartheid South Africa campaigning for workers' rights. In 1976, he co-authored a book calling for trade union rights for black workers. He served two terms as president of the National Union of South African Students. After graduating in industrial sociology from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, he founded an institute that provided research and training services to trade unions and civil society groups. He was forced into exile in May 1987 after long periods of solitary confinement and torture. In 1988, Auret joined the International Labor Organization (ILO) and worked on its Program of Action against Apartheid in Geneva until 1994 when the new democratic South African government appointed him Labor Attaché in the South African Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva. He returned to the ILO in 1996, where he worked on labor relations issues in 25 zone-operating countries and established a Swiss-funded project to improve labor relations in Special Economic Zones in China.