Cleaning a hospital isn’t glamourous, but during a pandemic, it can be downright deadly.
About six months into the pandemic, hospital cleaners at Calvary Hospital rejected a 5-cent an hour pay rise to their $22/hour base rate.
The cleaners’ union, the United Workers Union (UWU), labelled the offer “insulting”.
The largely foreign-born workforce wanted to be respected and appreciated for the work they were doing, and for most of the 29 workers, this was the final insult that led them to join the industrial action being undertaken by the UWU.
Hospital cleaning is significantly different from your everyday cleaning chores at home, one cleaner explained.
“Cleaning is very hard,” said Sachita, who has been working as a cleaner for the past nine months after losing her job to COVID-19.
“It is not like other areas or cleaning at home or shopping malls. In the hospital, you need to do it in detail. We have to do each thing perfectly and on time.”
That’s the job in ‘normal’ times. COVID-19 added an extra level of complexity.
“I was also worried about COVID. We were putting our lives at risk and we are doing our job properly.”
At 8:00 pm Wednesday (16 December), after months of negotiations, two walk-offs and rolling bans, the new pay agreement – encompassing a $1.05 increase in the cleaner’s hourly base rate and significant overtime increases – was reflected in the wages that hit their bank accounts.
“The process was time-consuming but at last we succeeded,” said Sanjoy Chhetry, who has been working as a cleaner at Calvary for over a year.
“The money means so much. We were hoping it would be near that level where we can live our lives comfortably.
“It is a thankless job. We have been taken for granted. We were working during COVID and did not get one thank you but now we are getting appreciation and that means so much.”
Sanjoy has a 12-month-old child at home, adding to the stress of working throughout COVID-19.
Those with families were forced to take extra precautions to keep their loved ones safe.
“Everyone was scared but we have to do what we have to do,” said Nidup Zangmo, who’s been cleaning at the hospital for more than six years.
“We were careful. We have experience with PPE but going home was difficult for people with families.
“They used to bring extra clothes and change, and then change again at home. Some would keep clothes in the laundry.”
And those were the ones who still got to see his family with some workers leaving their children and families overseas to work and study in Australia.
“Most of us are international students and we have fees and lots of expenses and it might be a little thing for them but for us, it is a big change, it is really going to help,” Nidup said.
“During the pandemic, some of them have lost their jobs so it is going to make a big difference in our lives.”
At first, many were reluctant to join the union’s action as they feared for their jobs and livelihoods during the pandemic. But slowly the cleaners began to encourage one another to band together for a better deal.
“It was our first time [protesting] and we were really worried. We tried to encourage one another and we were almost in tears when people from came to help, it really touched us,” Nidup said.
“We are being treated as human beings because that was what we were always saying, please treat us as a team and support us.”
Sachita said the increase meant the workers could keep up with the cost of living.
“It was hard but we did it!” she said, with a crack in her voice on Wednesday when the workers joined union officials for cake to celebrate.
“In this pandemic situation, and with groceries and rent, everything is expensive these days. The pay increase is good for our daily lives. It is helping us in many aspects,” Sachita said.
“We need to think about our health as well and do our job sincerely, which is why we are fighting for our rights and now we are happy that they increased our pay.”