The federal government is winding back the JobKeeper payment for early childcare educators as early as July 12. This is despite a guarantee that the wage subsidy scheme would last until September.
It is also ditching the free scheme for parents of essential workers and others, and reintroducing the old childcare subsidy system for parents.
Education minister Dan Tehan said the scheme was working so well it had to close. On June 8, he said: “What we have seen is demand grow and grow over the last few weeks, so that we needed to change the system … This system was designed for when demand was falling. Now, we are seeing demand increasing.”
United Workers' Union spokesperson Helen Gibbons criticised the move on June 9, saying that early childhood educators have been “betrayed”. “Thousands of educator jobs are at risk, especially for the casual workforce, which make up 25% of the early childhood education and care sector.”
Tehan claims not to know what will happen when the subsidy has gone. “Demand will drop again once parent fees are reintroduced in a few weeks, beginning another spiral of instability,” Gibbons said. “The future for this feminised workforce is at risk,” she added, noting that thousands of early education jobs will be at risk.
The government announcement comes on the heels of the controversy over the $60 billion shortfall in the JobKeeper scheme, and state government efforts to deny public sector workers and essential workers their already agreed pay rises.
Removing JobKeeper for early education workers will affect a significant section of workers who have been classified “essential” during the pandemic.
The change will have a significant impact on women, who make up the majority of childcare workers. It will also disproportionately impact poorer families, already suffering more from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
NSW Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi has criticised the move, saying many families will now be forced to reduce their work days, or completely remove their children from care. “Let’s be honest: it will mostly be women who are forced out of work now,” Faruqi said. Labor Shadow for Early Childhood Education Amanda Rishworth said the decision could “act as a handbrake on the economy”.
The Centre for Future Work’s Alison Pennington said returning childcare services back to private hands made “no sense”. “Childcare help was only a life raft the government threw to women and now they’ve sunk it”, she tweeted on June 8.
“Women have suffered worst employment and income effects in this crisis. Ending childcare support now entrenches their setbacks and means less women in paid jobs and more stuck in 50s-era gender roles,” Pennington tweeted.
“Putting childcare in private hands is about government unwinding any COVID-era public good gains. With household incomes strained, women out of work and care costs prohibitive, breadwinner model with female carer will be only option for low-income families with young children.”
As the lockdown restrictions are eased, the federal government does not want to foot the childcare bill for parents heading back to work (outside of their home).
It has promised to allocate about $708 million as a transition payment to childcare services from July 13 until September 27. But this is unlikely to protect, or guarantee, income for childcare educators the same way as the $1500 a fortnight flat rate JobKeeper provided.
Tehan admitted that early childhood educators may earn “a tiny bit less” with this change. Gibbons said this shows how little he knows about how many childcare workers already live pay cheque to pay cheque.
Early education workers are one of the most underpaid professions in Australia. Many childcare educators work on a casual or part-time basis, with shifts often only available when the number of children attending the service is in line with centre-based ratio requirements.
Under the new scheme, employers do not have to guarantee their employees a job. Attendance at pre-COVID-19 levels is also not guaranteed. This means that childcare workers who were receiving JobKeeper will not only lose job security, they will face a significant cut in pay.
The move highlights how the federal government views early childcare educators — as glorified babysitters, contributing little of value. Not only do we need to campaign for free quality childcare, we also need to organise for decent wages and conditions for educators.
[Jacob Andrewartha is a childcare educator and a member of the United Workers' Union.]