14 Feb, 1961 – 8 Aug, 2021
There was palpable grief in August 2021, in Sydney, the Philippines and many other countries, when Lina Cabaero-Ponnambalam succumbed to pancreatic cancer. She was much-loved and respected.
Lina was the Coordinator of the 2,500-strong Asian Women at Work, Coordinator of PACSI (the Philippine-Australian Community Services Inc at Blacktown),
Lina Cabaero-Ponnambalam on duty at the Asian Women at Work event
Chairperson of the Immigrant Women’s Speakout, as well as Campaign Officer of Migrante Australia, the Filipino migrant workers’ organisation, and a prominent delegate and Branch Executive member of the Australian Services Union, NSW / ACT Services Branch.
Lina received an Edna Ryan Award in 2016 for improving the conditions of women workers, the ASU’s Fran Tierney Award for 2020, Summer Hill Woman of the Year in 2018, and the Women of the West Award in 2014. She accepted all these awards for the community work of the staff and volunteers at Asian Women at Work.
Lina had a profound commitment to working people, and especially to women. She lived her trade unionism and socialism, and along the way made lots of dinners and parties, jokes, pranks, dancing, songs, artwork and placards. She didn’t seek the limelight, but in meetings would watch how conversations developed and then would find a way to contribute.
Lina was already a fully developed organiser when she hit Australia in the late 1990s. She hated injustice and worked to form strong counters to the power imbalance in society. Lina was a genius at engaging to achieve the small steps that improve people’s lives. She wasn’t a ‘pie in the sky’ dreamer. She could handle her own ego, didn’t destroy relationships with personal attacks, and had realistic judgement about people’s capacities and what was achievable with effort.
In Hong Kong
Lina had been a leader of the Asian Students Association (ASA) based in Hong Kong, 1990-97, where she met her future husband, Jega Ponnambalam, who represented Australian students in ASA.
Her work there involved a lot of writing – sharp and witty – and a lot of traveling, public speaking, and meetings. Lina said these “opened her eyes further on the issue of social justice all over the world.”
While at ASA, she also consistently spent time with the mostly women domestic workers of Hong Kong. She practiced ASA’s saying: “Your struggle is my struggle”. Lina had a brand of activism, because she was always militant and feisty with a dash of playful naughtiness.
Lina and Jega’s flat in Woosung Street became an epicenter for solidarity meetings, events, and parties. Her comrades say Lina was hands down one of the best ever house hosts and party hosts.
She was a superb cultural worker, helping to create ‘Maria Magtanggol’ (stand up for oneself) – a street theatre character for empowered domestic workers. Migrants would dance and sing with her without worrying about how they looked. She was an influencer before influencers were a thing.
In the Philippines
Lina came from the poor province of Bicol. She was a veterinary student the University of the Philippines, Diliman, in the early 1980s, the tail end of Martial Law. On one no-class day (for a protest), Lina suggested to her friends that they join the protest and see what happens. The police attacked the peaceful protest and Lina reacted with anger.
She decided to become a full-time activist. So, her father took her back to Bicol. After a two-week stand-off, her father said, “OK, enough of this, you can go, but don’t expect me to support you financially.” Lina said, “That’s OK, the people will support me!”
Amid the many human rights violations, the many killings of people who criticised the dictatorship, the students went everywhere – to picket lines, to rallies, or to stay with farmers or the urban poor to see what life was really like, living in different houses and supported by the community. Lina was also part of a street theatre group which did ‘lightning plays’ at markets or bus stops, very short, but precise plays that gave a message – and then they ran!
Lina joined the League of Filipino Students, the largest and the most militant student group, and from there she was elected to the ASA Secretariat. She had become deeply anchored to the national democratic struggle of the Filipino people.
In 1998, Lina and Jega moved to Australia, where Jega’s Sri Lankan family lived in south-west Sydney. Lina was with her son, Miko, and soon a daughter, Natasha, was born.
In 2001, Lina started working at Asian Women at Work, which organises low-paid migrant women –in nail and beauty shops, restaurants, factories, or making clothes from home. When they arrive in Australia they can’t study English because they need to work to support their families, so they often become isolated, mostly underpaid, not knowing their rights. Some work very long hours, or two jobs, putting stress on their relationships.
After a few years Lina became Coordinator, applying the community organising model that Debbie Carstens, her predecessor, had learnt in South Korea and Lina had learnt in the Philippines. Instead of telling the women to come to a seminar about their rights, they invited them to activities which would relieve their stress and help them to make friends – tai chi, singing, dancing, calligraphy, painting, drumming and excursions, as well as English classes. This way the women workers opened up about their issues and became advocates for themselves and for others.
Members of Asian Women at Work made crucial interventions in the Canberra and Sydney parliaments on regulations for outworkers, WorkChoices and the Fair Work Act.
After Lina death, messages of condolence came in from both sides of politics, including David Coleman, Liberal MP for Banks, Chris Hayes, Labor MP for Fowler, Jodi McKay, Labor MP for Strathfield, Stephen Bali, Labor MP for Blacktown, Labor Senator Tim Ayres, and Linda Burney, Labor MP for Barton. Lina had organised them all !
In addition, Unions NSW on the motion of the Women’s Committee and Lina’s union, the ASU, paid tribute to Lina’s life and the contribution made in her life’s work by establishing an award in her honour. The Lina Cabaero Inspiration Award, which is intended to inspire other women with the wonderful legacy Lina has left as a community worker, activist, human rights advocate, feminist, and unionist, is presented annually on International Women’s Day.
Created by Peter Murphy, with input from Norman Carnay, Hong Kong, Jill Biddington, and Lina’s own words from 2015.