More than 1000 early childhood educators walked off the job at 3.20pm on March 8 as part of a national action to protest gender pay inequality and a lack of government funding for the industry.
Dozens of childcare centres closed mid-afternoon to support the national campaign, which follows similar actions held on the same day last year.
The walk off on International Women's Day — not technically a strike as it was organised with the cooperation of centre management bodies and parents — symbolised the hours each day that women in the industry begin to work for free in comparison to similarly qualified men.
Early childhood educators are a qualified, highly skilled workforce but their work remains undervalued. Educators earn $20 to $25 per hour despite the increasingly high level of qualifications they hold.
Early childhood educators have a huge responsibility in educating children in the first few years of their lives. But they are some of the lowest paid professionals in Australia, earning a third less than educators of older children and similarly qualified workers in male-dominated sectors.
The Big Steps campaign is about fighting for the government to fund wage increases for educators. Parents cannot afford to pay more and centres cannot afford to pay more, so this money must come from the government.
Over the past five years educators have doorknocked, rallied, spoken to the community and lobbied politicians but they are still waiting for action.
The union covering childcare workers, United Voice, has a long-running wage case in the Fair Work Commission, arguing that the workers are undervalued because the industry is 97% female and it is seen as just “women’s work”, something women should do just because they love it.
The Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s figures show the national gender pay gap is 16.2%, with female-dominated industries attracting lower wages than male-dominated industries.
For example, the award for a metal fitter and machinist with a Certificate III is $37.89 an hour, compared with the $20.61 earned by the Certificate III qualified early childhood educator.
United Voice is calling on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to value their work by funding equal pay in the 2017 federal budget.
United Voice assistant national secretary Helen Gibbons said workers were leaving the industry because of the low pay. “Historically people who worked in the sector were seen as doing the job for the love of it,” she said. “It does bring people enormous joy and satisfaction but love doesn’t pay the bills.
“We can't continue to provide high quality early education while paying people poverty wages.”
Jo Hunt, an educator at Canberra’s Wattle Early Childhood Centre, said: "I walked off the job with fellow educators at 3.20pm on International Women’s Day because we’re tired of waiting for the government to recognise that just because our sector is mostly women, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.
“Early childhood educators are paid about a third less than both teachers in older age groups, and workers in male dominated sectors with similar qualifications, and that’s not good enough.
“Parents already pay a lot for early education and care, so we recognise that they can’t be expected to foot the bill for higher wages: we need government funding, and we need fair wages for the important work we do.
“The first few years of a child’s life are crucial for brain development and set children up for the rest of their education. Paying about $20 an hour to qualified educators facilitating that development is disgraceful.
“We provide high quality care and education and there’s a strong regulatory framework to support that, but our pay doesn’t reflect it at all, and the sector is constantly losing talented people because of the low pay.”