Speech on the Big Steps campaign and early childhood educators

In Parliament | 09.03.17

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE ( 16:12 ): I bring to the attention of the House the importance of early childhood educators in the lives of children all over the State, particularly those children under five attending child care and other centres. Early childhood educators are people whose jobs involve the education of young children at a time when a child's brain is performing the most amazing leaps and bounds of growth and knowledge. It is a time when children are highly vulnerable and need reassurance and support. Early childhood educators care for them and their families each day. Early childhood educators draw up individualised, developmentally appropriate, play-based learning programs for dozens of children, keep them on track, evaluate their progress and help them through difficulty. These are the people to whom we entrust our children.

For this crucial and necessary work these people are paid a manifestly inadequate wage of just $20 an hour—97 per cent of these people are women. They are early learning educators and they are being treated appallingly in the determination of their wages. Compared to their counterparts in primary and secondary education, they receive one-third less in wages. Are we to think they somehow provide one-third less in value, given their skills and experience? Thanks to the Big Steps campaign, the fight for change, equality and recognition is building strength and placing this unjust state of affairs firmly on the agenda. Yesterday, more than 1,000 early childhood educators walked off the job to campaign for higher wages. It was the biggest early education walk-off in Australian history.

To these women and men I give my full solidarity. If nothing can be more important than the development of a child, then nothing can be more important than the proper remuneration of the early learning professionals whom we entrust to instruct and encourage that development. The Turnbull Government has failed to adequately fund the necessary increase in pay for these educators, instead choosing to tinker with family payments and let international corporations off the hook for billions of dollars of unpaid Australian taxes. In addition to their low pay grade, early learning educators have come under attack from the likes of Senator David Leyonhjelm. In January Senator David Leyonhjelm claimed the jobs of these educators were nothing more than "wiping noses and stopping the kids from killing each other." While I can think of a few things to say in response to Senator Leyonhjelm, I will instead read a letter written by a childcare worker in Sydney named Chloe Chant, who wrote:

Three weeks ago I stopped everything and spent an entire day of my personal unpaid time creating documents to be used in court for a family in the middle of a child custody hearing ... The next day I went to work and wiped a lot of noses.

Two weeks ago I identified behaviours that indicated possible child sexual abuse. I talked to the child, I talked to parents, I consulted research and theory, I completed mandatory reporting requirements, I cried—a lot ... And I managed to stop the children killing each other.

This week I held a baby as he experienced febrile convulsions. I cooled him, reassured him, called an ambulance, called the mother, comforted the hysterical mother, evacuated the other children, kept airways open. I provided first aid that could have prevented brain damage or death. I spent four hours filling out legal documentation, paperwork, reflections, and analysis .... And I wiped some noses.

On Monday I completed a set of observations, learning summaries and analyses that culminated in a recommendation that a child be assessed for learning delay. I sat there sweating and feeling nauseated while waiting for the parents to arrive for a meeting to discuss this. I was yelled at, screamed at, accused of being an insensitive unprofessional bitch, and then they cried, and then I hugged them, and then I talked them through all the support and strategy I was going to offer to help them and their child .... And, to my knowledge, I managed to let zero paedophiles into my service.

On Wednesday I said goodbye to a family who were moving on from our service. They thanked me for the support, the documentation, the planning, the individual observations, the learning analyses, the patience, the help in times of crisis, the emotional investment and countless episodes of first aid treatments in times of emergency .. And, I wiped some noses.

Yesterday we celebrated International Women's Day and this overwhelmingly female profession took the last resort option of walking away from their work in a bid to force the Federal Government to take notice. And to anyone who is unsure, this is a women's issue. Yesterday's walk-offs took place at 3.20 p.m., which represents the time women in Australia effectively start working for free because of the persistent gender pay imbalance. I thank those who every day take up this fight, the union movement and in particular United Voice and the Big Steps campaign. I thank those who care for our children every day and who are standing up to say, "Enough, we deserve to be paid more". I call on the Government to fund equal pay in this year's budget and support the true value of early learning educators.

HANSARD - NSW Legislative Council, 9 March 2017

In addition, Penny Sharpe moved the following motion in the Legislative Council:

1202. Ms Sharpe to move—

That this House notes that:

1.            That this House notes that: (a) 8 March is International Women’s Day, and (b) women working in female dominated industries are paid less than men working in male dominated industries.

(a)          8 March is International Women’s Day, and

(b)          women working in female dominated industries are paid less than men working in male dominated industries.

2.            That this House supports the Big Steps united voice campaign and the decision of early childhood educators to strike at 3.20 pm on 7 March 2017 to signify the time women effectively start working for free due to the nation’s gender pay gap.

3.            That this House condemns the fact that teachers teaching pre-school aged children are paid as little as $20 an hour, or $25.72 for a university-qualified early childhood teacher, despite their professionalism and responsibilities.

4.            That this House calls on the Commonwealth and State Governments to support fair wages for early childhood educators and teachers.

(Notice given 7 March 2017)