Love doesn't pay the bills

We’ve had a lot of tears, but that’s a positive, because it comes from such passion, experience and dedication.
Dr Anne Aly

Early childhood teachers shared heartfelt stories of dedication despite low pay with Federal Early Childhood Education Minister, Dr Anne Aly at the IEU’s Reality Roundtable on 4 November.

Dr Aly spent almost a full day listening to everyone from students to seasoned directors, preschools and long day care staff and for-profit and not-for-profit employees as they explained how workload, wages and workforce issues were affecting their lives.

Dr Aly said the problems in the sector were “not a new conversation” but “you now have a government that is listening . . . we are committed to working through these issues with you”.

Emotions were running high as some teachers explained they were resigning from the profession they love because they could no longer cope.

“I cried every day for a year coming to work during COVID. It was just huge what we had to do, to support the families, the children and the other staff. I couldn’t cope. It was burnout,” one teacher said.

Another teacher, a single mum who said she would never be able to pay off her HECS debt, relies on welfare to top up her income.

“I shouldn’t be in that position. I have five years of uni behind me. I’m a professional teacher.”

Another said she had worked as a nanny on Saturdays for many years “just to pay the rent”.

“I’m an absolute professional, yet I feel the shame of living in poverty. It’s a big challenge to my mental health.”

Another said: “You need a good partner with a good job to survive as an early childhood teacher. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Directors talked about the stress of having to negotiate their wages over and over with a parent committee; the difficulties in finding casuals due to the current worker shortage and having to cover for Cert III educators when no one else was available.

“People are losing their passion. Love does not pay the bills.”

One teacher said: “The stress comes from the gap between what you know the children need and what the funding allows.”

IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Senior Industrial Officer Michael Wright outlined some of the challenges in the sector. Enterprise agreements must be negotiated on a centre-by-centre basis. This is a laborious process, and subsequently many early childhood teachers in NSW remain on the low paying modern award.

Multi-enterprise bargaining, as proposed by the government’s Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022, would address this problem, enabling teachers to ask to be included in an agreement with colleagues from other centres.

Dr Wright said pay parity for early childhood teachers with school teachers is key to making the sector more attractive. At the moment a teacher qualified to teach 0–8-year-old children can choose to work in primary schools and earn up to $25,000 more than they can in the early childhood sector.

In 2013 the IEU initiated an Equal Remuneration Order case before the Fair Work Commission, arguing early childhood teachers were underpaid because they were women. The legislation required the IEU to prove they were underpaid by using a male comparator, in this case male engineers and male primary school teachers.

Sue Osborne Journalist

I’m an absolute professional, yet I feel the shame of living in poverty. It’s a big challenge to my mental health.

Due to flaws in the current Fair Work Act, the Commission had to reject this comparison, and the IEU was unable to pursue this case. Under the new legislation proposed by Labor, gender equity would be given priority and the highly problematic need for a male comparator would no longer exist.

Were the IEU to run this case again, it is expected that it would have a better chance of success under the proposed legislation.

Dr Wright said it was also important early childhood teachers continued to emphasise their professional qualifications and the research which illustrated the importance of having a degree qualified teacher present in every centre.

“Teachers and educators are different and we need to say so.”

IEU Vice-President Early Childhood Sector Michelle Thompson said collective bargaining would give the profession a stronger voice, but right now it was “chronically haemorrhaging dedicating, qualified staff” and urgent action was needed.

Subsidised childcare fees from July next year would result in even more demand for places. Early in November Goodstart Early Learning Advocacy Manager John Cherry told a Senate Committee the nation would need to employ 9000 more early childhood staff, as well as fill the 7000 current vacancies to meet surging enrolments.

Summing up the day, Convenor and journalist Lisa Bryant said teachers were reaching breaking point, struggling with mounting bureaucracy and children with additional needs.

“We need concrete ideas and concrete action now.”

Bryant suggested some immediate actions such as standardised downloadable enrolment forms on the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) website.

Another useful step would be a change of rules around the university prac. Currently diploma qualified staff working towards their degree cannot do their prac at their own workplace. They must take unpaid leave to do the prac at another centre, for up to 85 days in some cases.

Speaking at the close of the event, Dr Aly said she had never encountered a room of such passionate, professional and dedicated people in all her years as a policy maker, a professor and a politician.

“I have seen the love for what you do and, more importantly, the love for the children and the education you provide. It’s abundantly clear right here in this room and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to share that passion with you. It is truly a privilege to meet you all.

“We’ve had a lot of tears, but I know where those tears are coming from. That’s a positive because it comes from such passion, experience and dedication.”

Dr Aly said the government’s Early Learning Strategy would reflect that early learning was part of the education journey. The government would focus closely on the 0-5 years, with Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth and Education Minister Jason Clare part of the process.

“We know what you do is not childcare. No child born into disadvantage should have to carry that disadvantage through life. The work that you do is fundamental to that, and that’s phenomenal.

“If you have spoken today about losing your passion because of the conditions under which you work, I ask you to reflect on the difference you make each and every day to a child’s life.

“Give yourself a moment to look in the rear-view mirror and think about how important your work is.”

Dr Aly outlined the government’s plans for multi-enterprise bargaining, fee-free TAFE places, a Productivity Commission report on the sector, the ACCC inquiry into the sector, the Early Learning Strategy, and university scholarships.

“This is just a start. In five months, we can’t fix 10 years of neglect. We’ve hit the ground running but there’s more to do.

“We can’t do this alone; we need union support, and our state government counterparts must help.

“We recognise you are highly trained experts who want significant career pathways. Let’s keep talking.”

IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam said it was important for the government to engage in ongoing consultation with the union.

Sue Osborne