At a ceremony last week, the newly appointed ACT Woman of the Year, Sonam Choden, was honoured for her work as a union delegate representing her coworkers, the Calvary Hospital cleaning staff, who battled for and secured fair wages and working conditions late last year.
Mrs Choden says she feels strongly about the issue because the team consists of people like her – women on temporary visas working long hours to support their spouses and children while they study.
“I am extremely honoured to receive this award, though I don’t deserve it,” she says. “We did it as a team.”
Wanting the best education possible, Mrs Choden’s young family moved to Australia five years ago, and Canberra has become their “second home”.
Leaving behind a 12-year career as a primary school teacher, she juggles full-time and part-time cleaning jobs to pay for living expenses and school fees.
“Whatever we are planning, we are planning for our kids only; we sacrifice everything for our kids.”
Growing up in the Kingdom of Bhutan, Mrs Choden says her late father taught his children the importance of respecting women, including their mother who made many sacrifices.
“He has always dreamed and encouraged us to be educated and independent. During difficult times, I still remember him supporting us throughout.”
She feels her father’s dream is fulfilled because she and her siblings are financially independent.
But that security was tenuous last year.
“At our workplace, they didn’t increase the pay for almost three years.”
Mrs Choden and her friends went through “tremendous mental pressure working with increasing health risks” when the pandemic began.
“We played our critical role in keeping the workplace safe and hygienic; but still we were given little appreciation.”
She represents her team during bargaining processes and planning meetings, a role she says is full of new experiences.
When the Calvary cleaners asked for wages equal to what other companies pay for the same job – including at Canberra Hospital – they felt “insulted” by an offer of five cents more an hour.
“So that’s why we had to stand up all together.”
Workers sacrificed hours of income to protest, eventually securing a four-year agreement meeting their demands.
Between parenting and work, Mrs Choden hasn’t had much time to plan what’s next.
“One thing I can assure you is I’ll keep on working, I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing, and I’ll keep on supporting my colleagues at Calvary,” she says. “I’ll encourage them to speak out whenever they are treated unfairly.”
The 2021 ACT Young Woman of the Year is environmentalist, Dhani Gilbert, and the Senior Woman of the Year is community organiser, Liz Stephens.
Read about their work here.