Australia’s current workplace laws give employers an unfair balance of power, and lack the robustness necessary to protect workers. The early childhood education sector is not immune from this reality, Journalist Sara El Sayed writes.
Shaping the minds of Australia’s youngest citizens is vital work – yet early childhood education employees in many settings are treated unfairly when it comes to pay and conditions.
These teachers are not given the respect they deserve for what they do, and instead face a system that is actively diminishing the importance of their work.
With the vast majority of employees in the sector being women, the devaluing of early childhood education has wide social and economic impacts.
When work of equal value is not equally remunerated this contributes to the gender pay gap, which currently exists at 14.6% in Australia.
The reality is that the rules as governed by the current federal coalition government perpetuate this gap.
This government has failed to address inadequate wage standards in female dominated industries, and continues to uphold legal obstacles that prevent employees in such industries from achieving fairness through bargaining.
But across Australia IEU members are fighting to change the rules in early childhood education.
Union movement at the forefront for change
One of the biggest issues facing early childhood workers across the country is pay equity.
The current system effectively sees work with young children as unworthy of just pay and conditions.
In our preschools and kindergartens, early childhood teachers in many settings can receive $32,000 less than their counterparts who work in primary schools if employed under the Modern National Award.
The IEUA NSW/ACT Branch is pursuing a landmark case in the Fair Work Commission (FWC) in a bid to ensure all early childhood teachers receive equal pay for work of equal value – by changing the award.
The FWC, as a result of the IEUA application has now stated there is a potential “issue” in award wages for early childhood teachers.
The FWC has indicated that there may be better scope for such an outcome by reviewing the wage rates in the Modern National award.
The widening of the scope has implications beyond the early childhood sector.
Changing the Award would effectively make history and open the door for other employees to make similar change across other industries in Australia.
Read more about this significant move to change the rules on page 8.
There’s more to do to restore a fair bargaining system
Even for some teachers working in kindergartens with collective agreements, the pay gap can continue to exist.
In Queensland, a kindergarten teacher at the top of the incremental scale covered under a contemporary collective agreement can receive approximately $7000 less that their teaching counterpart in say a Queensland Catholic primary school or a state school.
IEUA-QNT Branch Executive member and director at Borilla Community Kindergarten, Emerald Jenny Finlay said all teachers with the same qualifications should be paid equally, regardless of the context they work in.
“While pay and conditions for early childhood teachers have improved over the years through collective bargaining, there is still some way to go,” Finlay said.
“These teachers have the same qualifications, have to meet and maintain the same Queensland College of Teachers (QCT) registration standards and deliver a curriculum prescribed by the government.
“Early childhood education teachers should definitely be remunerated and respected at the same level as other teachers in schools.
“The context of the work may differ, but the relevance and value of that work remains important.
“Teachers specialise in different areas to meet the needs of different children at different ages and stages of learning.
“One specialisation is no more valuable than another.”
Finlay said lack of consistency of agreements across the sector contributes to the problem.
“Some employers are still trying to strip back employees’ working conditions.
“Issues of pay parity are only exacerbated when there is a lack of consistency between early childhood education agreements,” Finlay said.
Legalising sector bargaining can restore fairness
IEUA-QNT Senior Industrial Officer John Spriggs said current workplace rules greatly tipped the balance of power in favour of employers during negotiations, resulting in workers generally experiencing record low wages growth, with many collective agreements facing the threat of being cancelled or terminated on employers’ demands.
“In the early childhood sector our members have set benchmarks in terms of working conditions in Queensland kindergartens. It is crucial that we protect this legacy and continue to make enhancements to wages and conditions.
“However, currently early childhood employees across Queensland alone are covered by hundreds of separate collective agreements with varying negotiated provisions.
“In order to guarantee fair collective bargaining, which includes uniformity of wages and conditions, members in the early childhood sector need to be able to collectively negotiate one single multi-employer certified agreement for the whole sector.
“However, our members’ capacity to do so is frustrated by Australia’s current broken industrial laws.”
Sector bargaining is the act of workers in a common industry negotiating conditions collectively in an agreement to cover workplaces with multiple employers.
Under current laws, this is illegal.
“Workers are prevented from bargaining across an industry even though this might be what is required to stop employers from gaining an unfair advantage,” Spriggs said.
“The concept of a single agreement for all kindergartens is not without precedent, as historically one collective agreement existed for every kindergarten in Queensland.
“In 1996 shortly after collective bargaining was established in Queensland, our union successfully finalised a collective agreement that applied to every single community kindergarten in Queensland.
“However, a range of factors, including the introduction of multiple governing bodies, limitations on multi-employer agreements in the legislation and restrictions on the resources available to employees when seeking such agreements, resulted in a move away from one single agreement.
“To give members the ability to create multiple-employer agreements, sector bargaining should be legalised.”
Spriggs said government funding is already given to all kindergartens at the same level, therefore a common expenditure on labour costs would be a reasonable position.
“The most logical outcome would be that all kindergartens be subjected to the same agreement with the same level playing field.
“This would go a long way to further recognising that community kindergartens are a crucial part of the education sector.”
Change needs to happen now
At this moment union members across Australia continue to fight to Change The Rules.
The voices of IEUA members are crucial in ensuring we are able to achieve positive change.
If you believe the rules need to change for early childhood education employees, join the campaign to Change The Rules and restore a fairness to our workplace laws.
Visit www.changetherules.org.au for more information.