Moving towards wage justice


04 July 2024

Early childhood teachers and educators are expected to get a long overdue pay boost this year.

The federal government has committed to funding wage increases for the undervalued and feminised workforces, including the early childhood sector.

Minister for Early Childhood Education Dr Anne Aly says the commitment is an important step to properly valuing and recognising early childhood teachers and educators.

It’s also critical to the attraction and retention of workers, she says.

“It is absolutely clear that this is a professional workforce that loves and values what they do. But as one educator told me, ‘love doesn't pay the bills’. And it is a workforce that is under increasing financial stress because the remuneration doesn't reflect the professionalism and doesn't reflect the work that they do.”

The Fair Work Commission, which recently increased minimum and award wages by 3.75 per cent, has acknowledged that workers in feminised industries and occupations have been undervalued.

The Commission says its gender equity research project has identified priority areas for attention including early childhood education and care workers, disability home care workers and other social and community services workers, dental assistants, medical technicians, psychologists, other health professionals and pharmacists.

The Commission’s research, undertaken by the University of New South Wales Social Policy Research Centre, considered large, highly feminised occupations in feminised industries employing more than 1.1 million workers.

It found more than 97 per cent of early childhood teachers and educators were women.

Hearings to examine “gender undervaluation” will commence shortly, the Commission says.

Long day care bargaining

Meanwhile, negotiations are continuing to win a 25 per cent pay rise for employees in early learning centres.

Negotiations began last year after the Commission’s historic decision to authorise the AEU, the Independent Education union and the United Workers Union to negotiate an enterprise agreement with 65 employers.

Chair of the AEU’s federal Early Childhood committee Cara Nightingale says that the negotiations cover only about 15,000 of the more than 200,000 teachers and educators employed in the centres, but the final result will set a benchmark for wages in long day care centres across the country.

“There are serious inequities in pay and conditions between those working in sessional kindergartens and those employed to run kinder programs
within long day care services,” says Nightingale.

She says the log of claims shows that the top issues for early childhood members include a wage increase, professional development, additional planning time and delegates rights.

Universal access

While there is progress on pay and conditions in the sector, there is unfinished business when it comes to the calls for funding two years of universal access in preschools and early learning centres.

Nightingale says it’s all about where you live.

“For example, Victoria is probably the most advanced where two years of free kinder is offered to all three-year-olds and four-year-olds.” Looking further into the future, Victoria says that by 2036, all children will have access to 600 hours of kindergarten for three-year-olds and 1200 hours of pre-prep.

In South Australia, the state government has recently announced an investment of $715 million over five years to implement universal preschool for three-year-olds from 2026 and other key recommendations from the Royal Commission into Early Childhood and Care.

In the ACT, three-year-olds can access 300 free preschool hours and NSW has begun a rollout

At Mount Pleasant Road Primary School in Victoria, kindergarten director Al Milsted says the waiting list for the 15 hours of free kindergarten for three-year-olds is “through the roof”.

“If we could put on a second class we would,” Milsted says.

He says three-year-old kindergarten has been a positive move and “amazing”.

“The more hours we get with the children, the greater level of connection we have and the greater opportunities to support and guide outcomes.”

He says the children are more settled and have a sense of belonging.

“They have a trusting relationship with staff. They're able to let go of their parents and have less separation anxiety. The improvement in their socialisation and communication skills is incredible,” Milsted says.

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Winter 2024