Zulaika Shaheen has worked in early childhood education for over 20 years. But, she says, as much as she loves her work, there are times when she feels like walking away. “You'd be better off working as a car park attendant, without all the stress and worry or everything that you have to do.”
Supporting a family on a childcare worker’s wage is difficult, says Shaheen, who has two children aged in their twenties. “It's very hard to get a bank loan if you're only earning $25 or $26 an hour.”
She says it's hard to make it to the end of the pay cycle without using her credit card, especially when big ticket items like car registration needs to be paid. “You have the same bills to pay in a household that everybody else does.”
The case for a wage increase
Childcare workers around the country will walk off the job today as part of their fight for a government-subsidised pay rise. As others have pointed out, an early childhood educator with a Certificate III qualification receives around half the national average wage for adults working full-time.
It is no coincidence that the most gendered profession (97 per cent of the sector is women) is also the lowest paid one, says childcare consultant Lisa Bryant. “Women’s work is always undervalued, especially when it is seen as something that does not require skill - women are ‘naturally caring’ so why should we pay for them to do this? It is also something that they used to do for free.”
Many parents justifiably wonder why educators’ wages are so low when childcare is so expensive. “Compared to other OECD countries, the government invests less in early education and care, so the proportion of the cost of the care that is born by parents is higher,” explains Bryant.
“Whereas the mean investment for OECD countries in early education is 0.8 per cent, for Australia its 0.5 per cent. In over 50 per cent of other OECD countries the ratio of costs is 90 per cent born by government, 10 per cent born by parents. In Australia it’s 65 per cent government, 35 per cent families.”
Families can’t afford to pay more, she says, so services have to cut costs somewhere. “The highest cost of running a childcare centre is wages, so wages are kept low primarily because government investment is low.”
On the job
Looking after children is just one component of the job.
An increasing proportion of an educator’s day is taken up by administrative tasks like creating programmes, recording ‘individual needs’ evidence for each child, and writing incident reports. “You're doing lots of observations and lots of learning stories. It's an enormous amount of paperwork,” says Shaheen, a group leader in a room with children aged between 18 months and 2.5 years.
Staff are also required to fulfill ‘non-contact’ tasks and accreditations like fire and food safety and ongoing professional development. It’s skilled work that is physically demanding – yet early childhood education is one of the lowest paid industries in the country.
Bryant says early childhood educators need a pay rise.
“Over the last decade the importance of early education and care in building the architecture of young brains has been proved more and more. I’d love to see the importance of the work educators do reflected in living wages,” she says.
She argues that early childhood teachers should have pay parity with other teachers.
“They do the same degrees and have harder jobs, so why not? Educators should be paid at least a wage that is on par with other workers with diploma and certificate qualifications and a lot higher than retail workers.”
What low wages mean for the industry
One of the most obvious effects of low wages is a high turnover of staff – something I see all the time at my kids’ daycare centre.
“The last workforce census showed us that 45 per cent of educators had worked in the education and care sector for under three years,” says Bryant.
“Children thrive with long lasting relationships, which clearly, in a sector with this sort of figure, they are not getting. It is increasingly harder for the sector to recruit and retain great educators because they can earn more in less stressful positions in areas such as retail.”
Ash Condon, 24, works at an early childhood education centre in Newcastle. She loves working with kids but gets frustrated at the misconception that childcare workers are “babysitters”. “We have achieved qualifications in educating and assisting young children and that does go unrecognised.”
Condon has her certificate III and is studying for a diploma, which entitles her to $22 an hour under the award. She gets by with careful budgeting, but still faces tough decisions when it comes to making ends meet, like choosing between a family member’s birthday or a friend’s wedding.
“It isn't always possible to do both, although it would be nice,” she says. “Even family dinners or purchasing a second work shirt are hard decisions to make.”
Condon, whose partner also works in the sector, isn’t sure if she will stay in early childhood education long-term. “I am passionate about children’s education and would love to further my career within the field, but I have considered higher paying jobs such as OT and speech pathology.”
Shaheen won’t be walking off the job on Tuesday, but she supports the campaign to increase wages. A pay rise would mean a great deal to her. “It would bring us up to the average working-class person,” she says.
“People just do not realise what happens in a childcare centre – what we have to do, the enormous amount of paperwork that we have to do, and the enormous amount of qualifications that we have to have.”