Big Steps confronts small pay: The fight ahead for childcare workers

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United Voice, the union that organises childcare workers, has kicked off the Big Steps campaign to fight for pay increases for workers in the sector. More than 12,000 workers, childcare users and community supporters rallied across the country on 17 November 2012 to participate in National Big Steps Day.

Childcare workers are woefully paid, and there is no career structure. A worker with a Certificate 3 earns just $18.58 per hour. As a result, 180 workers leave the sector every week to take up better-paid employment.

It is certainly no exaggeration to label the state of the industry a crisis. It’s not only haemorrhaging skilled workers. Fees are skyrocketing and places are difficult to obtain, especially in the not-for-profit part of the sector. In the last year, childcare fees nationally have risen by 11.3% and the cost, on average, of care is now $68 per day. It’s worse in Melbourne, where the fee hike was 14% and the daily cost is now $75!

Childcare is an essential service, and the failure of governments to provide it is a huge contributor to the 17.8% gender-based pay gap, which stubbornly persists across the full-time workforce. Put simply, the high cost of childcare means that many parents cannot afford to work full-time. With women’s jobs frequently being the ones attracting lower pay, it’s women who “choose” to work part-time as part of the juggling act politely referred to as achieving work-life balance. This further contributes to the statistic that, over her lifetime, on average, a woman will earn a million dollars less than a man!

Australia has a highly gender-segmented labour force: many people, both women and men, work in jobs where their gender predominates. Women’s labour in the domestic sphere (cooking, cleaning, caring and organising) is performed for free. This leads to women’s work being undervalued in the paid workforce. Despite the complex set of skills required, childcare attracts low pay, because it is seen as women’s work.

What’s in a name? The Big Steps campaign places emphasis on the professionalism of childcare workers. The union refers to these workers as early childhood educators and calls for their pay to be on parity with teachers. Increasing their pay to the level of teachers would provide a welcome boost. However teaching, which is also a female-dominated profession, is also affected by the undervaluing of women’s work.

It will take much more than changing the position description from carer to educator to win wages justice for these workers. Ged Kearney, President of the ACTU and former nurse, spoke at the Melbourne rally, noting that nurses had to take protracted industrial action to make significant inroads into their unequal pay. This example of what will be needed to win is an important historical example to inspire childcare workers to take similar action. Like nurses, childcare workers face immense social pressure not to abandon their posts and those in their care. However, also like nurses, they have to be prepared to flex their industrial muscle.

Childcare workers have enormous social power. Twenty years ago, there were 256,000 children in childcare. Today the figure has quadrupled to just under a million. With mothers now an integral part of the economy, capitalism relies on childcare in the same way it relies on electricity, public transport and the internet. A coordinated national childcare strike would mean widespread disruption in all other sectors, as hundreds of thousands of parents absent themselves to care for their own kids.

Who should pay? Like nurses and teachers, childcare workers know that those who use the vital service are their most important allies. A strength of the Big Steps campaign is its objective of uniting parents and workers to fight for a different funding model.

United Voice is clear that improved pay for childcare workers cannot be funded out of the pockets of other workers, who need childcare services to be able to earn a living. That’s why the campaign is demanding $1.4 billion in recurrent funding from the federal government.

But the campaign needs to do more than demand that funding be injected directly into the sector. A complete makeover the system is required.

The problem is that childcare is a multi-billion dollar industry. Private operators, in the industry to make a profit, now control two-thirds of the long day care market. Two decades ago the landscape was very different. Private companies provided just 15% of childcare services. These corporations receive more than 3 billion dollars annually in subsidies through the childcare rebate system. This corporate welfare was introduced in 1989 by the federal Labor government. While purporting to assist parents with the cost of childcare, it does nothing to counter escalating charges or profiteering and has continued to spur the growth in private centres, to the detriment of services provided by state and local governments. While most parents would prefer to use a not-for-profit childcare centre, the places are simply not available.

High quality childcare, provided by well-trained and paid workers, is a basic right for parents, with publicly funded not-for-profit facilities made freely available to all. This service also needs to be available around the clock. Few facilities currently cater for shift workers, and for those that do, after hours care is four times as expensive. Government needs to inject massive funding into building public childcare centres and adequately funding them. Taxing big business and scrapping funding for corporate welfare and the imperialist war machine would easily raise the money.

The Big Steps campaign is brimming with potential. It’s union led, unites workers and users and demands that government must pay. But it must also explicitly challenge private sector domination of the industry and be prepared for childcare workers around the country to walk off the job. The Big Steps campaign is also planning to make this fight a key issue at the upcoming federal election. While reducing fees and increasing wages within the childcare sector must be on the agenda, it is essential that the campaign remains fiercely independent, it must not funnel childcare campaigners into harbouring illusions in the Labor party, whose policies have helped create the crisis in the sector today.

Pay Justice Action, a group of grassroots unionists campaigning for equal pay, is backing the struggle for childcare workers to gain the pay rise they deserve. Coupled with this, winning free, quality 24-hour childcare is also an essential part of the struggle to permanently close the gender-based pay gap.

To get involved with Pay Justice Action, contact or call 03 9388 0062

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