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Thursday, 17 March 2005
Page: 112

Senator MACKAY (5:15 PM) —I would like to congratulate Senator Watson on that excellent speech and add my sentiments to it. I would like to use this opportunity in the debate on the appropriation bills to speak about a group of people who I believe are grossly underpaid and undervalued. I stand before you today frankly outraged and astounded at the wage that child-care workers earn in this era. These are the front-line people to whom we entrust our children. These are professional people who deliver important outcomes in the early years. These are people who work in conjunction with parents to educate, nurture and guide Australia’s children and Australia’s future.

A number of things that are in this speech I did not know until quite recently. I figured that if I did not know about them then other senators might not know about them and the Australian public might not know about them, and I believe that they should know precisely what is going on with the wages of child-care workers. I do not think we value child-care workers, because we are paying them peanuts. I would like to ask if anyone in the Senate today thinks that such an important and vital profession is worth an average of $14 an hour.

Senator Patterson —Are you sending this to the states?

Senator MACKAY —Fourteen dollars an hour, Senator Patterson. Can you imagine living on $550 a week? Child-care workers are paid $14 an hour. Senator Patterson seems to be a bit sensitive. Perhaps I could read on. She might get a bit less sensitive as the time goes on. Frankly, it is not a liveable wage and child-care workers know that, and that is why they are leaving the industry in droves. They have recently been awarded a pay rise in the Australian Capital Territory and in Victoria but not in a state jurisdiction anywhere else. The flow-on will be and is being resisted by the federal government, Senator Patterson.

Here is one area of skill shortage that we are not talking enough about because for every child-care professional that disappears from the market there are potentially three to four parents who cannot get care and therefore will not be working either. When child-care centres cannot get enough skilled workers they have two options: deeming unqualified people qualified or downsizing their service, neither of which I believe anybody in this day and age would regard as acceptable.

Sadly, the situation is in danger of getting worse, not better. This is where the federal government does come into the frame. This government is gleefully intent on adopting an American style industrial relations system. Child-care workers can potentially look forward to a further decrease in their wages. Fantastic! Fourteen dollars an hour is going to look brilliant next to the $11 an hour wage that will be the case if a national minimum wage is imposed. That is precisely what this government is on about when it talks about reforming industrial relations. You can forget about the pay rises that were given to child-care workers in Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, because Senator Patterson’s federal government wants to centralise industrial relations in Canberra. These people are already doing it tough but this government, through what I regard as regressive IR proposals, wants to make it even tougher for this type of worker. I acknowledge Senator Marshall’s earlier speech.

I have spoken to child-care workers. I know they are not happy and are feeling extremely undervalued. We are talking about people who often have trained for three to four years. I do not know how many people realise the amount of training one has to go through in order to become a qualified child-care worker. They train for three to four years studying child development, only to end up earning a pittance. That is what I believe $14 an hour is: a pittance. In fact, I remember that when in my younger days I was a kitchen hand and a waitress I was earning around that amount of money then. And you did not have to have any formal training to be a kitchen hand or a waitress, unlike qualified child-care workers, who need three to four years training and who are getting—let me repeat this—$14 an hour on average.

One of my staff, Leah Nischler, is in fact an ex child-care worker and a teacher in the area of child development. When we were putting this speech together, she told me about the years that she had spent giving her best to other people’s children—and she loved her job—for $14 an hour. That wage only served to push up her household debt. She told me that living on a wage that never got above the poverty line meant in her personal circumstance that some days she did not have enough petrol to get to work, sometimes she and her children ate rice three days in a row and some days she genuinely thought about keeping her kids home from school because of the lack of a bus fare. She said that she was forced into driving an unsafe car and not paying house insurance, and she panicked when her child developed a nasty cough or got ill in any way—and we know what has happened to health under this government—because it might have meant a trip to the doctor, and that meant finding the cost of a prescription or finding the cost of the gap. There is very little dignity left at the end of the day when you are surviving on a child carer’s wage. That is what she told me.

She also told me that as a teacher—she is currently part time at the moment—she finds it difficult not to encourage students to look elsewhere, which in many cases they already are. I was shocked when she told me that out of a class of 30 students only five chose to go into the child-care industry. Many had seen the wages and decided to go elsewhere. We are complaining about a skills shortage. Child care is an area where there is a skills shortage. They are undertaking these three- to four-year courses and they are being offered an average of $14 an hour. Why would they do that? They are going elsewhere. As I said, you can work in hospitality in a job that requires minimal training—or in my case, as a waitress and a kitchen hand on and off over my younger years, with absolutely no training; I am quite happy to admit that—and washing dishes like I was—

Senator Patterson —A long time ago.

Senator MACKAY —a very long time ago, unfortunately—and get $15 an hour. So why would you spend three or four years training to be a child-care worker and get an average of $14 an hour? But guess what? It is an occupation dominated by women. So guess what? It gets paid peanuts. What a surprise.

One of Leah’s colleagues, Denise Direen, who still works in child care, says it is impossible to survive on a child carer’s wage. I quote what she said to me:

My husband earns a good wage so we’re okay but if I was too survive on a childcare wage ... well I wouldn’t, I’d be looking for work elsewhere, and its not just the pay, the conditions are appalling, the hours are long, the work is both mentally and intellectually intensive and you don’t get paid for overtime. But you’re patted on the head told to be a good girl and not complain. Speaking up for yourself is seen as somehow unseemly.

I think that this is something that applies more generally to women but particularly, she was saying, to women in this industry. The bottom line is that if we pay these valuable professionals, because that is what they are, who are looking after our future—because that is what our children are—appropriately then our children will benefit by receiving the best care possible and they will then get a great start in life in terms of education, and everybody benefits from that. I wonder how many parents listening tonight are aware that this is an industry which at the moment survives on the exploitation of its workers through the payment of what I regard as appalling wages. It should not be like this.

I know the government will remain clinging to its rhetorical life raft in respect of this matter and rant on about the fact that it funds parents not workers but, believe me, that life raft is sinking fast and the government’s argument is becoming more and more feeble and mean. I mean ‘mean’ because here is a government that places very little value, despite all the rhetoric, on families and children. It does everything within its power to avoid investing in the early years of children’s lives—and that is before we even get to the catastrophe that we now face in terms of university funding, public school funding and so on. It seems to me that the only people who care about carers are in the union that these carers belong to. Having worked as a union official myself, I know that it would have been very difficult for these carers to make the decision to join a union, because I know the sort of worker I am talking about—and I am sure Senator Moore knows exactly what I mean.

For the past five years, the LHMU has been running a child-care campaign that strives to acquire what they call the three Rs: recognition, respect and the one that I am talking about tonight, inter alia—remuneration. By and large, child-care workers are not political, and it has been hard for them to publicly stand up and say, ‘We believe we deserve better and more.’ It is just not the way they think or operate. They are looking after children, and they care about the kids that they look after. In many cases, their primary concern is getting on with the business of looking after the kids but, if they cannot afford child care for themselves and cannot afford to provide their own families with a decent lifestyle, then they are compelled to speak up or leave the child-care industry for good, which is what they are doing. An exodus from child care means that we are getting less experience, fewer skills and very little consistency within the industry, and that impacts directly on the service that our children receive. The LHMU and child-care union members who have taken up the fight have had victories. For instance, I alluded earlier to the recent wage decisions in the ACT and Victoria. These were not easy victories. It was a very long, hard slog for the LHMU and the members who participated in that campaign, and I would like to congratulate them for it. I would like to applaud them for being true advocates for Australia’s children, families and themselves, of course.

However, it is not enough that the industry needs change and that child-care workers need wages they can live on. The reality is that $14 is a joke already. A US style minimum wage of $11 an hour will be the nail in the child-care coffin, not to mention in that of many, many other industries. I think Senator Marshall talked about a future proudly led by hamburger flippers. What the LHMU and child-care workers want now is a genuine commitment from government and all parties—not just the coalition but also the Labor Party et cetera—to fund child-care wages properly. We cannot say it cannot be done, and we cannot run the ‘parents versus child-care worker’ line. Child-care workers should not be going cap in hand to the government saying, ‘Please, Sir, can I have some more?’ The government should be saying: ‘We value our children. Our children are the future of this country. We value our children, and we value the people who look after our children.’ That is what should be happening. So I call on the government to make child care and child-care workers a priority and give these people a wage they can live on.

It is not an accident—and I will conclude on this note for Senator Moore’s benefit—that the wages are so low even though the training takes somewhere between three and four years. These not the sort of workers who take industrial action. These are not the sort of workers who actually go out on strike—that would be the normal thing. The people on the other side would say that they are probably all militant unionists who go on strike at the drop of a hat and leave the kids running around with no care et cetera. That is the stereotypical view of workers from some on the other side of this chamber. These workers will not do that. They care too much about their jobs. To some extent we are exploiting that goodwill. We are exploiting the fact that they will not take industrial action, that they will not put bans on and that they will not go out on strike. It is like we are saying: ‘That’s fine. Hey, they’re not causing us any problem. Let’s keep paying them $14 an hour on average. Let’s keep paying people who are trained for between three and four years for their occupation, who look after children—the future of this nation—$14 an hour.’ However, the government do not think that. The government think: ‘Hey, let’s pay them $11 an hour. Let’s bring in the US minimum wage. Let’s leave it to the marketplace, where the weak get weaker and the strong get stronger, which is what happens in the United States in relation to industrial relations and unions, and let’s not pay these workers $14. Let’s see how they go on $11.’