Cleaners at Calvary Public Hospital in Canberra have won a dispute with their contractor, Compass Medirest. Calvary, Australia’s 37th largest private company, made more than $1.3 billion last financial year. Cleaners there haven’t received a pay rise in nearly three years, and prior to the strike were paid $3 less than cleaners at the neighbouring Canberra Hospital.
The workforce are mostly migrant women from Bhutan and Nepal, many of whom are international students working more than one job to cover the cost of their degrees. Their actions have shown that it’s possible for some of the lowest paid workers in Australia to fight for their rights and win, even in the context of an unprecedented economic and health crisis.
The strike began on 2 November, after workers were offered an insulting pay rise of just five cents per hour. Cibele Webbie, a Brazilian woman who has worked as a cleaner at the hospital for three years, played an important role in initiating the strike. We met her at a rally outside the hospital of striking workers and their supporters organised by the United Workers Union.
“Most of my friends [at Calvary] are from Bhutan. I don’t think they thought they could protest”, Cibele tells Red Flag. “Most of them pay $17,000 every six months for student visas”, she adds. “All these people have two jobs. They work 80 hours at Calvary Hospital, and then more hours at schools, anywhere they can.”
According to Cibele, the company does this to these people because it knows that they’re not going to fight back. “They’re scared of losing their visas, they’re scared of losing their jobs. But they didn’t count that I was going to be there, and I’m not scared. I’m a permanent resident, but even if I wasn’t, I wasn’t going to be scared.”
Cleaners at Calvary haven’t received so much as a thank you for the crucial service they have provided during the pandemic. “We were all scared ...We were lucky because Canberra was really safe and nothing happened, but it could”, Cibele tells us. “I was working in the suspect area. You have no idea how crazy it was, and they never even said ‘Thank you, you did a good job’.”
But it was the insulting pay offer that provided the impetus to strike. “We started [striking] the day they sent the offer to us”, Cibele says. “When they offered us five cents, I remember I said ‘Let’s stop. Let’s just stop! They need us!’ And I saw [my co-workers] were all listening to me, and they believed we could do this because I knew we could. I felt so good, because it’s amazing seeing people feeling that they can fight for themselves.”
Despite her leading role in the strike, Cibele stresses that it wouldn’t have been possible to win alone. “They’re all saying it’s all because of you, but it wasn’t just me—it was us! They just needed someone that had the courage to say things and not be afraid of looking into the director’s face and talking. The only thing I had more than them was courage.”
Cibele’s experience growing up in Brazil gave her the confidence to take a stand in Australia. “I’m a really political person because I have no choice”, she says. “I’m a Black woman, my mother was a single mother. My grandmother was one of the first women to get divorced in Brazil. I had to learn to fight for myself really early in life. My mother is really into politics in Brazil. She’s not a politician, but she has many projects that help Black women and women that work as farmers. So I was born into this sort of thing, fighting for rights and for a better life.”
When the far-right Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in 2018, protests erupted against him. Cibele joined in, demonstrating outside the Brazilian embassy in Canberra. “When I went to protest at the Brazilian embassy, I went by myself. Many people say ‘I don’t like politics’, but politics is everywhere in your life, you know. I have the chance to show the world what’s going on. So I cannot lose this opportunity. Because I’m nothing, I’m just a cleaner ... But it doesn’t matter, I’m doing my part. I need to express my opinion and show to whoever I can what’s going on in Brazil.”
During the Calvary strike, Medirest deliberately tried to divide the workers, offering the part-time workers an increase to entice them back to work. “I’m part time, it’s me and four other people”, Cibele says. “I was already negotiating with them when they offered [it to] me. It was an online meeting and someone in some big position said to me directly ‘But Cibele, we offered you [a] 19 percent increase, why are you still fighting?’ And I said ‘because I’m not going to leave my friends. It’s for all of us or none’.”
After two strikes in as many weeks, Medirest finally gave in. Despite this, workers nearly walked out again. Cibele explains, “We thought [the pay rise] would be from last Friday, and we were going to get back pay from this period, but they refused. They want to finish all the paperwork, which will take at least three months. They offered us $300 to wait until then, and now they don’t want to offer the $300 any more because we didn't accept that—we want more.”
Days later, the cleaners had won their back-pay demand plus significant increases to penalty rates—all to be paid out in time for Christmas. “I’m so happy! I didn’t think we’d get it all. My friends are so happy”, Cibele says after the offer. “Even the people from the kitchen are getting together to fight for an increase. I think it gave people hope to fight for their rights. Many people joined who weren’t part of the union before. Forever they’re going to see the world from a different point of view.”
Around the world, healthcare workers are risking their lives to get their next pay cheque. At Calvary, those who took on the job of keeping us safe during the pandemic were met with insult and humiliation from their bosses, unwilling to part with even a tiny fraction of their profits. But the workers’ successful action reveals just how important their labour is to the functioning of our hospitals. It’s also shown the importance of individuals like Cibele, and how being fearless can help others to take action and get a taste of their collective power. Their win is a win for all of us.