Representation really matters

Lisa Bryant, early childhood commentator and journalist, writes about what we learn looking back at the management of the COVID pandemic in the early childhood sector. We need vigilance, she says, and we need to make our voices strongly heard through our union.

The lessons we need to take from lockdowns across Australia are multiple. By the time you read this NSW and Queensland may well be in another lockdown. Or it may not be far off. Or we may be safe. Regardless, there are things we need to learn.

When Melbourne went into Stage 3 lockdown, it once again exposed that despite clearly being an essential service, there was no way the education and care system could survive without special support.

But unlike the earlier Australian-wide lockdown, early childhood teachers (and educators) were not allowed for in that special support. The first lockdown brought JobKeeper, a payment that, although made to the employer, had to be passed on in full to staff.

This rescue package was different. The Transitional Grants and the Additional Viability Supplementary Payments that services received went directly to services – the employers.

So what happened?

Good employers, like always, did their best to hang on to all their staff and to ensure their staff took the least financial hit possible.

Others did not.

Despite the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, promising the package would work for services, parents and teachers and educators, it clearly didn’t. Yes, services have had to sign a guarantee that they would continue the employment of their employees. So, what’s the issue? The employees had to be kept on, right? Yes, the agreement was clear, employees had to be kept on and employers had to offer them more than one shift over the shutdown period. In other words an early childhood teacher could be offered just two shifts in a two month period and that counts as having their employment continued!

The fact is that this government will never view teachers as important as businesses. Sam Page, the CEO of Early Childhood Australia, put it this way: “Early childhood teachers are using leave and losing income because the Federal Government cut a deal with business operators to remove JobKeeper and reinstate childcare fees.”

We need to learn that who represents early childhood teachers really matters.

Unions are crucial – always

We need to relearn the lesson and spread the word that our union is crucial. In lockdown early childhood education and care unions are not just protecting and fighting for their members’ jobs, they are also the ones clarifying the complex funding packages and the complex eligibility to work and access early education and care during the pandemic. They are the ones that members go to when their shifts are halved, when they are told to present to work rather than work at home even when no children are present, or when they are forced to take every bit of long service leave they have before they can get usual pay.

And we need to relearn the message that unions are only as strong as their membership. If you work with people who aren’t members of the union, get them to join. Now is the time we need a strong advocacy voice.

We also need to learn the importance of a good workplace agreement. Things might be fine and dandy in your workplace now but when the fear of a pandemic hits service owners and management committees anything can happen.

We need to learn that who represents early childhood teachers really matters.

The day after the Victorian package was announced, despite the fact that it was being widely condemned – by unions, the ACTU, ECA, commentators like me, and loads of Victorian teachers – the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, made three ‘thank you’ tweets. He thanked the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia (ELACCA – the lobby group for large education and care providers such as G8), the Australian Childcare Alliance (lobby group for small for-profit providers) and Goodstart (largest not-for-profit provider). He linked to these organisations’ media releases saying what a great package it was. Goodstart appear to be doing the right thing by their employees. Others are not.

And this is what happens when you have a government that talks to providers only. The Minister used the words “the sector” when he announced his new package repeatedly. He spoke about how much consultation he had had with the sector.

The sector is not just providers, also known as business. The sector consists of providers, families, children and teachers and educators.

And what is good for providers is sometimes a long way away from what is good for the teachers that enable the providers to make their money.

Let’s never forget this lesson.

Call for comment: Share your views on early childhood funding throughout this pandemic, write to bedrock@ieu.asn.au