House debates

Monday, 10 September 2018

Private Members' Business


11:01 am

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

That this House:

(1) expresses concern that despite recent improvements in the gender pay gap, Australian women continue to experience sustained economic disadvantage, in particular women working in undervalued, traditionally female dominated industries;

(2) notes that on 5 September, early childhood educators around the country staged industrial action to highlight the need for equal pay and proper recognition for the value of their work;

(3) acknowledges the important contribution these workers, along with workers in other undervalued care professions such as aged care, health and disability care make, not just to our nation's economy but to Australian society; and

(4) calls on the Government to take action to support equal pay and recognition for women working in undervalued care professions.

It is extraordinary that yet again we have a government that is so chaotic, so unable to govern that, although we have four speakers to this motion in my name on this side of the chamber, there is not a single speaker on the other side of the chamber that's prepared to get up and debate the issue of equal pay for women and, particularly in this instance, the focus on equal pay for women who work in female-dominated industries such as child care. On 5 September, I was very pleased to speak to a rally of early childhood educators who had walked off the job in protest at the gender pay gap that they face in their industry. Last week's rally was bigger than the ones I've been to before. I think this is a movement that's growing in support amongst childcare workers and, most importantly, is growing in support amongst the parents, who value the work that early childhood educators do every day caring for young Australians.

I was also very pleased to recently be part of the launch of the Big Steps campaign in parliament last time parliament sat, because the Big Steps Campaign is a recognition that early childhood educators ought to be paid better for the complex, difficult, important work that they do. High-quality learning-and-development experiences in a play based learning setting are absolutely critical in the early years of a child's life. More and more science tells us how important those early days and weeks in a child's life are for neurological development, laying down neural pathways that last a lifetime. We know that in those early years 85 per cent to 90 per cent of the brain development occurs and children's cognitive and non-cognitive development is being nurtured along with foundations being laid for learning, behaviour, thinking and communication, and emotional and social skills.

Quality early childhood programs offer a very strong return on investment for taxpayers. We know that, by investing early, we save across the lifetime of a child. A child who starts school developmentally or educationally vulnerable requires more help in the early years of schooling. If we can invest early, we can actually smooth that pathway. Currently, one in five children start school developmentally vulnerable, and that's just not acceptable in a country like Australia.

If we value early childhood education, if we see the importance of this investment, we have to value the early childhood educators who do this important work, and there is no way anyone can tell me that it's a coincidence that you see this sort of undervaluation of the importance of this work in an industry where nearly 98 per cent of the employees are women. It makes no sense to me that someone with a certificate III in early childhood education earns 20-something bucks an hour, and someone with a certificate III in metal work earns 40-something bucks an hour. There is no way that is anything other than gender based discrimination.

Early childhood educators shouldn't hold out too much hope of the government actually fixing this problem. When asked about it last week, both the Prime Minister and the Treasurer brushed off the concerns of early childhood educators. The Prime Minister waffled on, 'I want to see the gender pay gap shrink because I want to see our economy continue to strengthen and because of the improved conditions and arrangements that are there for women right across the workforce. I wish everybody the best in coming to the best set of arrangements they can.' He totally disregarded the bargaining position of most of these workers, who are in very small workplaces, with perhaps half a dozen or a dozen staff. The short answer from both the Treasurer and the Prime Minister was, 'Not my problem'. I don't think that parents feel that way. Parents have generally been very supportive of the campaign of early childhood educators, because they see the complexity of the work that early childhood educators do. They see the way these staff pour their hearts and souls into the children.

This government have no plan for equal pay. They have no plan to lift wages and no plan for women. I think all these complaints last week about bullying within the Liberal Party, bullying of Liberal women—these two things cannot be a coincidence—go together. This government have had an appalling record in early childhood education. They cut $20 million from the national quality agenda at the last May budget. They introduced a new childcare subsidy system which leaves one in four families worse off, including some of the poorest families, and they want to cut $440 million from the national preschools program. So I move:

That this House:

(1)   expresses concern that despite recent improvements in the gender pay gap, Australian women continue to experience sustained economic disadvantage, in particular women working in undervalued, traditionally female dominated industries;

(2)   notes that on 5 September, early childhood educators around the country staged industrial action to highlight the need for equal pay and proper recognition for the value of their work;

(3)   acknowledges the important contribution these workers, along with workers in other undervalued care professions such as aged care, health and disability care make, not just to our nation’s economy but to Australian society; and

(4)   calls on the Government to take action to support equal pay and recognition for women working in undervalued care professions.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

11:07 am

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion. I rise today to speak on this very important motion raised by the member for Sydney, which calls on the government to take action to support equal pay and recognition for women working in undervalued care professions. I want to thank the member for Sydney for her continuing efforts and her commitment to raising awareness about the need to address the gender pay gap in Australia.

Over 50 per cent of my constituents are women. They come from a mix of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. They vary in circumstance, age and education—from women who are now on the age pension, to women who are young and aspire to education and employment in their chosen careers. They are women who have families—young mums, single mums, women living with disability and women who are carers. My most recent arrivals are women fleeing the violence and the destruction of war. They have arrived here, grateful for the protection and safety we have offered, and are eager and anxious to rebuild their lives and those of their families.

Unemployment in Calwell is a challenge; so too is underemployment. But, in the case of my local women, the gender pay gap adds an additional burden to their economic disadvantage. This is especially the case for women who work in undervalued, traditionally female-dominated industries. Yes, there have been improvements in the gender pay gap. But our concern here today is that it has not been enough and we need to do more if we are to achieve equal pay and recognition for those women working in traditionally female-dominated industries such as early learning, aged care, health and disability care. These jobs are the backbone of our country. Workers in these areas provide for our vulnerable Australians and care for our needy. They support our young and they look after our sick. These are the jobs many of my local women choose as their profession. They deserve equal pay and they deserve recognition.

In their fight for this, last week, on Wednesday, 5 September, early childhood educators around the country staged industrial action to highlight the need for equal pay and proper recognition of the value of their work. Many of the women in my electorate participated in this stop-work. One of them, Roxborough Park resident Kate, who marched alongside other early childhood educators on the day, marched because she wants to send this government a message that this industry is not to be ignored. She marched because it's a hard job, a tough job, but a job she loves and she's been involved in for 20 years. She marched because she wants to end the high turnover of staff and said that, if the government paid them properly and recognised the work they do, they would feel valued to stay. She marched because other industries with the same qualifications of cert III and diploma level are paid a lot more. And she marched because she wants to end the stigma endured by her and her fellow early educators—that they are seen just as babysitters. Early childhood educators engage children in ways that are way beyond babysitting. They teach children to socialise, to interact and to learn. They allow families to feel safe and confident that they are leaving their child in a professional place with people who are trained to look after their children.

When I spoke to Kate last week about her job as an early childhood educator, she told me that what she loves most about her job is educating children, looking after families and mentoring the next generation of early childhood educator staff. She said:

There is nothing I love more than when a new family comes into the centre and I get to settle their child, especially for first time mums who are having to go back to work.

I love that I can make them feel safe leaving their child with me—giving them the security they need to go off and work. And then being able to watch their child's progress from three months all the way to kinder.

The children of our local non-English speaking communities have special circumstances and special needs that must be addressed if they are to get a fair go at school. Many newly-arrived migrants rely on early childhood education to help their children learn English and to help the families settle and integrate into the community better. In this community, Kate recognises that people rely on extended families for care. However, in many cases, they don't have the family support here in Australia. The childhood educators then step in and earn the trust and respect of these families and help them in settling into their new home.

How is it that workers who do one of the most important roles in our community, are the most undervalued? A Shorten Labor government will ensure early childhood educators are treated with fairness and decency, are recognised as a profession and paid their fair due. My question today in this chamber is: will this government do the same?

11:12 am

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm proud to speak in support of the motion put in the House by the member for Sydney about the gender pay gap. I also congratulate her on 20 years as a parliamentarian, and I look at the wonderful achievements that she has rolled out—and the more to come. It's sad to see that, on this motion, there are only Labor speakers. It's bizarre to think that we have a former human rights commissioner, the member for Goldstein, sitting in the parliament, mute or muzzled—I'm not sure—and not prepared to speak up on gender pay equity. It's unbelievable. He's happy to moan every now and then but, when it comes to talking about gender equity, he has nothing to say—unbelievable!

The reality for women in Australia is that they get paid 14.9 per cent less than men. That peaked at 18.5 per cent in 2014, which perhaps had something to do with the mining boom. I note that that gap is still higher than the OECD average—a shameful record for Australia. That is not okay. There is no comfort from the fact that we're not the worst in the OECD. There is still much more to be done. It is definitely not okay in a modern, progressive country in 2018. Women in Australia effectively work for free for the first two months of each year, and that is unfair. Fundamentally, people doing the same job should receive the same pay. It's not a difficult concept. I'm sure even those opposite would support that idea. But, at the current very slow rate that the gap is closing, it will be decades before equal pay for women becomes a reality for women in Australia.

Women don't want special treatment; they merely want the same treatment. It's no argument that women's work is mostly in what some call 'feminised' industries and that somehow that work is easier. We know that is rubbish. I know how hard women in the so-called feminised caring industries work. My mum was a nurse. She worked harder than most men, I would suggest. She had 10 children to look after and was a single mum for most of that time. When she was at home it was difficult, and then she had patients to look after when she was at work, patients who relied on her care to get well and get back to their own families and jobs. And in her first career, my wife was a social worker, working in child protection. I know how hard she worked helping families who were in crisis. On many significant days of the year like Christmas and New Year's Day, when most families were spending time together, Lea was working, looking out for other people's loved ones and, sadly, for those who nobody loved.

And what about our early childhood educators? They do such important work educating our most precious resource—children—especially in the first 1,000 days of life. Their patience and care give our kids the best start they can have in life. And what about the carers who look after our elderly family members? They give them not only care but precious dignity in their later years of life. In all of these industries, the workers are mostly women. These workers deserve recognition for the valuable work that they do. And what is the most obvious form of recognition? It's pay. So I'm very happy to support the member for Sydney's motion. Workers in these sectors are caring; that is the nature of what they do. They're always thinking of others before themselves. So when they stop doing their important work to draw attention to the unfairness of their wages, we know they don't do it lightly.

Last week we saw some early childhood educators stop work to send a message to the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government that time is up in terms of payment. This is unprecedented action taken by early childhood educators. I joined a Big Steps rally in Brisbane to show my support for them. I joined educators from Robertson and Salisbury and a few other centres in Moreton who are demanding better pay for the valuable work that they do. What sort of society do we live in if we don't value the important work that our early childhood educators do? If we value every child, we should value every educator and we should pay them better. Some early childhood educators must have tertiary qualifications, yet some of them are paid as little as $22 an hour. You'd be better off pushing trolleys in the supermarket car park. That makes them some of the lowest-paid professionals in the country. We expect the people who give our children their educational start to be well qualified. We expect them to be the best educators for our children. We cannot expect to attract people to these caring roles if they are not adequately remunerated. We've heard evidence that they are unable to get a mortgage and, on occasion, to even feed all of their family. These women are not asking for special treatment, just the same pay for doing the same job. There can be no more excuses. Our early childhood educators need support from good governments.

11:17 am

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today I'd also like to recognise all of the early childhood educators who walked off the job across the country last week, and I'd like to thank the member for Sydney for bringing this important motion before the House today. This is the fourth walk-off in 18 months, and it was spurred by the desperate wages crisis that has been completely ignored by this shambolic Liberal government, regardless of who sits at the helm trying to steer this crazy ship on any given day.

The action from the early childhood workers was designed to give a clear message to the Liberal government that the time is absolutely up on the gender pay gap. Australian women are sick to death of being paid less, whether it is in early childhood education or any one of the grossly undervalued caring sectors that employ so many women. Early childhood educators have been underpaid and undervalued for far too long. While there's been some small progress to reduce the gender pay gap in some sectors, the female-dominated caring sectors lag shockingly behind. This is a fact that is not missed by any Australian woman in any part of this nation. The pitiful wages paid to early childhood educators in no way reflects the true value of their work to our community.

In fact, it's hard to overstate the contribution that these workers make to our children, to our communities more broadly and to our social wellbeing as a whole. Everybody knows that education is the key to unlocking a child's potential. A child's brain develops dramatically during the first five years of life. It's a time of rapid cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional and motor skills development. Again and again, the studies show us that high-quality early childhood education improves a child's outcomes. Children who participate in early childhood education have more advanced development than those who don't, and disadvantaged kids have the most to gain from those early-learning environments.

But wages are way too low. Early childhood educators are some of the lowest paid professionals in the country, with pay as low as $22 an hour. Certificate III qualified educators receive a little over $800 a week, which is around half the average weekly earnings for all occupations. It is just so wrong that the people who are responsible for educating young Australians at such a critical stage in their life are paid less than half the average national wage. How can we possibly say that the people who are responsible for the wellbeing and development of our children are worth this little? It's appalling that these women could earn more stacking shelves at a supermarket than they do undertaking the work that they love so much. If we do not pay our early childhood educators properly, we won't be able to attract, or indeed retain, the skilled workers that we need to ensure our kids get the best start in life.

There are committed, talented people who have to turn away from these jobs because they simply can't afford to stay in them. According to a 2016 survey, one in five early childhood educators had plans to leave the profession within 12 months and others took on a second job just to get by. This cannot continue. Of course, it's no coincidence that the majority of workers in this important industry are women. Just like their hardworking colleagues in aged care or disability services, the vast majority of early childhood educators are women. So what needs to happen here? Well, it's past time for this government to take action. It's timely that we should be discussing issues of gender equity today—the sitting week after a bunch of men in the Liberal Party bullied and intimidated Liberal women who dared to stand in the way of their ruthless ambition. The wages crisis for early childhood educators demonstrates one massive problem with this government: they simply do not have enough women sitting at the table. The Liberals' refusal to commit to a genuine target like Labor, a 50-50 target, means that we're going to be sitting around for another 50 years waiting for those guys to get their act together and have equal representation in the Australian parliament. It's not good enough. Their time is up.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.