Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Workplace Relations

8:00 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak about some of Australia's unsung heroes. These unsung heroes are predominantly young women who, every day, give their very best—their expertise, their problem solving skills and their love, care and concerns—to Australia's most precious asset, our young children. The unsung heroes I am talking about are our educators who work in early childhood education and care. They work in childcare centres across our country.

As educators they are required to develop individual plans for all the children they are responsible for. These plans must detail the educational and caring outcomes for each child. Records need to be kept and outcomes reported to parents. Educators are accountable under the law for their actions and, in severe cases, fines can be applied. Educators must hold appropriate qualifications, including first aid, and keep their knowledge updated by attending in-service and other specialist courses. As they work in a team environment, they also attend team meetings, often in their own time. And at this time of the year, end-of-year events will be being planned, many of which are held outside of normal working time. There are also parent interviews, fundraising and mentoring co-workers and students. As well, centres are rated, and this means educators are observed, programs and policies are examined and a rating is given.

This is just a small snapshot of what it takes to be an early childhood educator. And, of course, we as a community and those of us who are parents of young children have a right to expect the highest standards of care and education to be in place. Yet educators are undervalued by society. Unbelievably, some in our community still see early childhood educators as 'babysitters', not as the pedagogical leaders that they are. And why is this so? Because the pay scale of educators goes nowhere near the responsibilities they hold; their legal responsibilities and the responsibility they take on each day as parents leave their children with educators.

A worker with a certificate III, equal to a tradesperson, earns just $19.07 per hour. A director, with direct responsibilities under the law, earns just $27.08 per hour. These rates of pay do not reflect the level of responsibility expected from this workforce, and they are at least $10 per hour behind an equivalent worker with a trade certificate. For a director with at least equivalent responsibilities to that of a primary school principal, they are woefully inadequate.

Many times in both state and federal jurisdictions, cases have been taken to industrial tribunals using pay equity or pay parity principles on behalf of educators. Some progress has been made: one dollar per hour here or 80c per hour there. Whilst this level of wage increase may make a difference to workers on higher wages, it makes little or no difference to educators, because their wage is too low for increases of this amount to make a difference. Let me make it clear: educators earn so little that they are locked out of the housing market, including the rental market. They cannot afford to have their own children. They certainly cannot afford childcare fees, and they battle to buy basic items, such as shoes, or to pay for driving lessons and so forth.

So educators lobbied the former Labor government, and indeed many in the coalition, about their low wage and their solution. As the federal government is the major funder of early childhood services in this country, educators believed that the federal government had some responsibility to play a part in fixing the wage crisis in the sector. Certainly it hampers the quality agenda when 180 educators leave the sector each week because they cannot afford to stay.

I want to give you a snapshot of a couple of educators, what they do each day and how they barely survive on their wage. Natasha is a team leader in the kindy room. Natasha instructs and develops programs as part of the Early Years Learning Framework. Natasha is also a part-time director and takes on additional roles such as enrolments, admin and paper work. The most rewarding part of her role is the relationships she is able to build with the children from her local community. Natasha can have a role in giving them strength and pride about who they are and their culture, and to help shape them into the little people they become. But Natasha finds that living on her own in a private rental very expensive. Having a pay increase would be beneficial. 'There are things I have to sacrifice so I can live fortnight to fortnight', said Natasha. 'If things happen, like the car breaks down, I might have to skimp or miss out on a night out or something, but that's my decision really. If rent wasn't so much, or we got a decent pay increase, I would love to be able to go on holidays. I would love to visit Sydney and see a live rugby union match.' These are some of the sorts of things that we take for granted in our community.

I want to turn now to Maddy. Maddy talks about the fact that her parents bought their first home when they were 21. Maddy says, 'That's where I'm at, but there's no way I can afford to buy a house.' Maddy feels like she is letting her parents down: 'You always want to live up to your parents dreams, but when I compare my life to theirs I have to think there's something not right here. I want to be independent, but rates in Canberra are through the roof and housing affordability is at an all-time low. I can't afford to move out and rent a house—I'd be looking at $450 a week. On an early childhood educator's wage, it's not possible. I want to buy a house, they say it's the Australian dream, but I can't afford to do that either.'

Those educators were successful in their lobbying last year and the federal government lived up to its responsibility and established the Early Years Quality Fund. It put $300 million into that fund. That was not going to fix the entire wage crisis in the sector, but what it would do was set a decent benchmark from which that workforce could go forward. Right now, having a benchmark of $19, you could have the cleverest lawyers in the land but you would never win a pay equity case because no commissioner in this land is going to award $10 an hour to an educator. So that Early Years Quality Fund would have put $3 an hour onto Maddy's wage, and that would have made an enormous difference to her take-home pay. It would have taken her from $19 to $21 an hour. It would have given her a better starting point.

What the coalition government is doing now is waxing and waning and not making a decision about the Early Years Quality Fund. They promised almost a unity ticket—'Yes, we'll live up to the expectations; yes, we'll pay out on those services that got their applications in.' That is what they committed to do, that is what Sussan Ley committed to do, before the election. Sussan Ley has met many of these educators and she admits they are low paid. But, right now, the coalition government is responsible for the Maddys and the Natashas of the world living in poverty by holding back on that $300 million, by not making a decision about the Early Years Quality Fund. That is something educators fought for, and won. The coalition government is now trying to renege on it and to pocket the $300 million, to put it into general revenue, so that low-paid educators who do an amazing job will have no access to it. It is disgraceful. It is time the government made a decision about the Early Years Quality Fund and put it into the pockets of the workers who so deserve it.