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Wednesday, 28 March 2018
Page: 2389


Senator LINES (Western AustraliaDeputy President and Chair of Committees) (13:17): Today I get up to state the case for early childhood educators across Australia, 6,500 of whom walked off the job yesterday to further demonstrate to the Turnbull government that the time to pay a professional wage is long overdue. But let me put into perspective what we are talking about here. There are more than 100,000 educators working in early childhood services across this country—108,000, to be exact. They work in long day care, educating almost 700,000 Australian children—from birth right through to five and six years of age—across 7,000 centres in Australia. Ninety-six per cent of that workforce is female and 70 per cent of those educators have their wages set by awards. And we know that awards in this country represent minimum rates of pay. Looking at the rest of Australia's workforce, 70 per cent of early childhood educators have their wages set by awards in this country compared to 20 per cent of workers in the rest of the sector.

Educators are qualified—from certificate III right through to early childhood teacher, Masters and PhD—and those qualifications take anywhere from 18 months to four years to achieve. Yet that sector is absolutely defined by poverty wages. If you have a certificate III and you are an educator working in early childhood education in Australia, you are likely to be paid about $22 an hour. For people listening to this and watching, a certificate III is the equivalent of a tradesperson. You show me any tradesperson who is paid as little as $22 an hour! There is no trade that is equal to that low rate of pay. An educator is someone who has done three or four years at university—and has paid HECS fees and so on—and they are on about $26 an hour.

Educators have been fighting for fair wages for the last 20 years in this sector, possibly longer than that. Their union, United Voice, has taken cases to every state jurisdiction in this country, and, indeed, the federal jurisdiction. Just a couple of weeks ago, after a four-year struggle costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Fair Work Commission saw fit to throw a case out. Those educators got a zero wage increase. I've stood here, since being elected, and I've heard the Turnbull government tell us that they don't set the wages and that the place to go to get wage justice is the Fair Work Commission. Well, the union has done that right across this country, in every state and in the federal jurisdiction, only to be told a couple of weeks ago, 'No, you're going to remain on those low rates of pay.' In fact, the Fair Work Commission didn't even talk to any early childhood educators. We know those rules are broken and there is need for change.

Alongside this, we know through academic study and research that early brain development for children between the ages of nought and three years is critical. That's when our brains develop the most and the fastest, and yet we've got a government who turns a blind eye to this. Indeed, I was gobsmacked earlier in the week to hear the government say the union, United Voice—my union—was somehow manipulating these workers. For any of the Liberals who get to meet with these educators in the halls today—indeed, some of them are up in the gallery now—they will see that these are feisty women who are proud of their profession and who want to stay in their profession. We know, through research that's been done at universities, that the only way that the women you see up in the gallery—who are directors of centres, who have certificate IIIs and who are teachers—can stay in the sector is either if their family supports them or if they've got a partner who earns a lot more money so that they can continue in the profession that they love.

The low wages in the sector are forcing hundreds of educators to leave the sector each week. That's a cost to Australia. That's a loss to the service where those educators have built up a bond with the children they are educating and with the parents who entrust the most vulnerable in their family to those educators to care for and to educate them every day of the week. It's a loss to those families and those children, but it's also a loss to us as a community. It's a cost to us, as a community, to keep retraining educators to go back into the sector. All we really need to do is sit down and work this out.

I've heard the government say, 'We don't employ educators.' All of that is a rubbish argument, because the reality is that this sector is 100 per cent funded by the federal government. Most of the funds, unfortunately, go to parents in the form of fee relief, but it is now time—it is long overdue—to treat these women with justice and respect and to recognise that they are professionals. It's time for the Turnbull government to sit down and say, 'We've got a problem—wages are too low and there's a massive turnover in the sector—and we really need to look at this problem.' The Turnbull government can't say any more, 'Go to the Fair Work Commission,' because the union tried that and they got zero. The Fair Work commissioners didn't even bother to speak to educators about the amazing work the educators do. They program—children in services have individual programs. Who does that? The women you see up there do that. They do that for $22 an hour. They do that on poverty wages.

When I was at United Voice, the amazing early educators that I met and still have contact with can't really afford to stay in the sector. They certainly can't afford to buy homes. They certainly can't afford to buy new clothes. They certainly don't buy new cars. The contribution that they are making to our communities, and, indeed, to Australia's future, is overwhelming, and yet they continue to be underpaid and under-recognised.

That has to stop. Why do we suddenly recognise what happens at the age of six in schools but turn a blind eye to what is happening between the ages of zero and six and particularly between the ages of zero and three, when children's brains are developing more than they ever will for the rest of their lives?

In the services that I have been to, I have seen quality programs. I have seen children being given amazing opportunities, with first-class learning and education going on. And, yet, we continue to ignore the plight of educators. We continue to say, 'It's someone else's problem that you are earning $22 an hour.' But it isn't. It is not someone else's problem. The problem rests with the federal government. It is time that the federal government sat down with the union, instead of saying the union is somehow manipulating these women. If those of you across the chamber, in your heart of hearts, think that, meet with these women. They are here today. You can have a chat to them and you will see they are not manipulated by anyone.

These are women who do an incredible job every day of the week with Australia's most vulnerable children, particularly those children between the ages of zero and three but up to six, and they deserve recognition. They deserve to be treated as professionals. I have met a number of women within the sector who have master's degrees, PhDs and teaching qualifications, and yet we continue to turn a blind eye to that. They are here today. You will see them in the corridors. Their campaign is called Big Steps, they are members of United Voice, they are not manipulated by anyone and they are here to ask the Turnbull government for decent pay, for professional wages, because they are professionals. They are professionals looking after the most vulnerable in our community, and it is long overdue that they got wage justice. That can only be provided by the Turnbull government. If the Turnbull government refuses to do that then we will make sure that the Labor government does, because they deserve professional wages.