Early childcare workers take action to address staff shortages, low pay

Early childcare workers are taking strike action across the country on September 7, to demand better pay and conditions and action be urgently taken on staff shortages.

Childcare centres are struggling to operate, due to a lack of staff, with many failing to meet essential staff-to-child ratios. Department of Education figures from February show that 11.2% of childcare centres require special permissions to operate because they do not meet the required ratios.

There is high demand for early childcare workers, with more than 6500 vacancies across the country, as of July 31.

One of the reasons that centres are struggling to find staff is that early childcare workers are among the lowest paid workers, earning between $1000–$1425 a week, with many working unpaid hours due to shortages.

Most early childcare workers are either diploma or certificate qualified and still only earn $24.07 an hour on average.

Research shows that more than two-thirds of early childcare workers do hundreds of hours of unpaid work to satisfy regulatory requirements.

United Workers Union (UWU) survey of early educators from July last year found that almost half (46%) think about leaving “all of the time” or “most of the time”. Projections show the sector needs 40,000 additional staff by 2023 to meet growing demand for early learning services.

UWU’s Early Education Director Helen Gibbons said the pandemic had only exacerbated an existing problem.

The survey, which was Australia-wide, found: 70% of educators said they “always” or “often” worry about their financial situation; 81% of centre directors have had difficulties in attracting and recruiting staff; 92% of educators said “under-the-roof” ratios compromise the safety and wellbeing of children; 65% of educators reported their services were already understaffed, and providers reported having to cap new enrolments because they can’t find enough staff.

A survey also found that 82% of educators said that in the past month they “always” or “often” felt rushed when performing key caring and/or educational tasks. More than 75% strongly agreed that turnover negatively impacts on how children learn and develop, as well as their emotional wellbeing.

Educators also reported an increase in workload since the pandemic, the main reason they cited being
“extra time needed for cleaning duties”.

Early childcare workers and the UWU have been fighting for better pay for years, but governments have taken very little action.

The fact that the majority of childcare centres are run by private companies and just 7% are government operated is another big problem.

The UWU’s survey said that while educators are “constantly struggling to do the best they can” with fewer resources and little support, “many for-profit providers are paying their CEOs outrageous salaries and their shareholders millions in profits”.

It said the “system of putting profits first has failed; we need to build a new system that puts children and educators back at the centre”.

Private operators receive significant government subsidies. The Australia Institute (TAI) found that Australia has the third highest proportion of private childcare providers receiving government subsidies: 77% compared to 13% in Iceland, 17% in Sweden and Denmark.

To address these systemic issues, TAI’s August 1 childcare reviewSecuring children’s future Nordic-style investment needed in early years learning, recommended reforms, including price caps based on a proportion of a family’s income, addressing the balance of private and government operators in the industry and raising pay for workers. 

The federal Labor government has committed to lifting the childcare subsidy rate to 90%. However this does not address the ongoing staff shortages or the poor pay and conditions for workers. Nor does it address the problem created by the largely for-profit early education sector.

The New South Wales and Victorian governments announced in June they would commit $5.8 billion and $9 billion respectively to the sector. However, the money does not begin to flow until 2025.

In addition, NSW will focus on paying private providers to introduce greater accessibility and introduce universal pre-kindergarten education over 10 years, whereas Victoria will spend $9 billion to make kindergarten free and, importantly, establish more than 50 government-operated centres.

A rethink is sorely needed on private childcare. And no government — state or federal — has promised to improve early childcare workers’ pay.

As the TAI report noted, to sustain adequate public expenditure on childcare and to avoid further escalating fees for parents “there will need to be less reliance in future on paying subsidies to private, for-profit operators”.

It said the increased payments “evaporate to an alarming extent into the wealth of commercial beneficiaries” instead of going to “sufficiently support wages and secure conditions for quality early childhood educators”.

These are all reasons why childcare workers are going on strike on September 7, Early Childcare Day, to demand the federal and state governments commit to fix early childhood education.

[Jacob Andrewartha is a unionist and childcare worker. He is a national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance. Join early childcare workers rallying on September 7. Find your nearest strike here.]