SA childcare centres to shut down for staff strike


Dozens of South Australian childcare centres are expected to close next Wednesday as part of a nationwide strike of early childhood educators fighting to improve their “appalling” pay and conditions.

Some centres will shut for a full day, others for part of the day, with staff converging on Parliament House to rally about the “crisis” facing the sector.

Parents are being asked to keep their children home – and join in the rally if they can to show support.

The United Workers Union says staff are “at the end of their tether” and want the Federal Government to “step up” and reform the system, with some educators paid as little as $24 an hour despite being qualified.

“They are doing this to take a stand,” the union’s early education director Helen Gibbons told InDaily.

“It demonstrates the passion of these educators – they are not just standing up for better wages and conditions, they are also standing up for better quality early education for parents and for children and real reforms of the sector.

“We can’t keep going in the way that we have – there has to be change.

“They’ve had a really hard lockdown – everybody has, but they worked throughout the whole lockdown, they were called ‘essential workers’ and yet they’re still working under appalling pay and conditions.”

Gibbons said there were educator shortages at centres “everywhere”.

“I don’t think there would be a centre in the country that doesn’t have a vacancy,” she said.

“When there’s no educators to care for young children, people can’t go to work, they can’t get on with their daily lives.

“We’re having children being turned away every single day because there aren’t enough educators to look after them.”

Gibbons said all early childhood educators have to be qualified, yet some are paid as little as $24 an hour.

She said even if they had the same qualification as a teacher, they can be paid 30 per cent less if they work in a childcare centre, “plus all the different conditions around planning time and holidays”.

“It’s really hard for them to build a life on $24 an hour and look after their own families and pay their own bills and that explains why so many of them are leaving,” she said.

Gibbons said workers were calling for better pay, to be recognised as educators alongside teachers and for an overhaul of the private system, claiming some providers were putting profits above children.

“There are too many centres that are making a lot of money off little children and they are not paying their educators properly – often they are not providing high quality early education environments,” she said.

“We did a report last year that found that there is a really significant amount of services that are failing to meet minimum standards and that is much higher in the for-profit sector.

“It’s just not okay that any children should be attending an early learning service that’s failing to meet minimum standards – it’s not good enough.”

Gibbons said she expected dozens of SA centres to close or partially close next Wednesday and take part in the rally, impacting “thousands of children and families”.

“There will be thousands of families that will be asked to support their educators next Wednesday by keeping their children at home,” she said.

“The educators have been having conversations with parents now for weeks and saying if you can, we really need you to keep your child at home and in fact why don’t you bring along your children to the rally and join us because it’s in parents’ interests as well as educators’ interests that we have a great early learning system.

“It is disruptive and it is a big ask of parents but parents have been brilliant.

“They want to support them and they can see how poorly they’re paid and the difficult conditions that they work under and they also relied on them right throughout the pandemic. When everyone else was closed, early education never was.”

Gibbons said some centres would have skeleton staff on hand in case families turned up but this would be as a last resort.

“I think that most parents are happy to support educators and know that it’s in the best interests of their child,” she said.

One centre taking part is Hillbank Community Children’s Centre, which will close for a full day, with 23 staff attending the rally.

Early childhood educator Rebecca Stiles with Addalyn. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The centre’s director, Rebecca Stiles, has been an early childhood educator for nearly three decades.

She said her staff were striking – with the support of parents – “to get our voice out there to get the Government to actually listen and do something about the crisis that we’ve got within the sector”.

“A lot of people don’t see us as being educators,” she said.

“We feel like we’re being left behind.

“We’re so much more than a babysitting service. Everything we do is about the education of the children.”

Stiles said many staff feel “extremely undervalued”.

She said wages had always been “very low” for educators, despite increasing demands on their time and requirements such as having to meet the early years framework regulations.

She said it was “very hard” for educators to live on $24 an hour.

“We had one lady who has had to live with her parents because she couldn’t afford the rent of her own house,” she said.

“I’ve got one particular lady in mind, her fridge breaks down and then her pipes go and it’s just such a constant struggle to make ends meet.”

Stiles said governments had for too long relied on the goodwill of “passionate” staff.

“I’m a huge advocate for children’s education and that early intervention,” she said.

“I certainly wouldn’t do it if it was just a job that I just needed the money. Even as a director, although I get paid more than the educators, for what I do, it’s really not worth doing it if you just need the money. You have to have a passion and you have to want to do it.”

She said conditions for staff in some private centres were substandard, with owners seeking huge profits.

“That’s more about just making the money and that’s not what childcare should be about,” she said.

“It should be about the education of children not whether you can buy a yacht and make money.”

The main rally will take place at Parliament House at 3pm on Wednesday September 7, with some regional centres also planning smaller gatherings.

Federal Early Childhood Education Minister Anne Aly said the Government wanted to see wage growth.

“That’s why we’re strengthening the ability of the Fair Work Commission to order pay increases for workers in female dominated industries and supported an increase to the minimum wage,” she said.

“However, it’s not just about wages – over the last month I’ve convened roundtables with the early childhood education sector where I heard time and time again it’s also about working conditions and attracting and retaining staff.

“Appropriately recognising early childhood educators as educators, not child minders, is an important step in raising the profile of the vital role our early childhood educators play in creating a foundation for learning and exploration that will follow a child as they continue their education journey.

“Supporting and growing the early childhood education and care workforce is critical to achieving our child care subsidy reforms and encouraging greater workforce participation.”

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