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'We've all got a stake in this': Why striking childcare staff will get my support

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Author: 
Perkins, Miki
Publication Date: 
5 Sep 2017
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Once a week, the staff at my son's early learning centre load up an old shopping trolley with a camping toilet, cheese sandwiches, a first aid kit, loo roll and sunscreen.

Rain or shine, they trundle along through suburban streets. Behind them are a flock of four-year-olds in raincoats, who hold hands, tell fart jokes and practise their superhero moves at the traffic lights.

Their destination is a hidden oasis, where a sprawling oak tree and an urban creek form the backdrop to an invigorating morning of "bush kinder".

This weekly expedition is a logistical feat, and a shining example of quality early education.

And it exposes the tone-deaf ignorance of commentators such as Senator David Leyonhjelm, who earlier this year said the role of childcare workers was merely "wiping noses and stopping kids from killing each other".

We owe an enormous debt to the fabulous educators - overwhelmingly women - who look after our children with such care and diligence when we are at work.

If these educators walk off the job on Thursday to join a national strike and call for better pay, I'll back them.

We should accept any minor inconvenience with equanimity to show solidarity with a workforce of crucial importance.

It's no coincidence this strike - expected to be the biggest in the sector in the nation's history - is taking place during Equal Pay week, that infuriating annual reminder of the decades to go before our great-granddaughters achieve pay parity.

And it's no coincidence a feminised workforce is poorly paid and undervalued: equating "caring" work with women is a modus operandi for the patriarchy that entangles us all.

Figures show childhood educators earn on average between $20-$23 an hour - a yearly wage of between $40,700 and $46,000 - depending on their level of qualification.

And kindergarten teachers, with a four-year-bachelor degree, earn only $29 an hour, or $58,000 a year, well below the $73,000 average income of primary school teachers.

In other words, the friendly young barista I entrust with creating a decent crema on my daily coffee earns about the same as the friendly young educator I entrust with my son's beautiful cranium and the development of the grey matter inside.

It's shocking, an indictment of what we value as a society.

This 80,000-strong workforce takes care of the most precious people in our lives, at a crucial time when their little worlds brim with new experiences.

There is oodles of evidence that a quality early education has a profound effect on how children thrive through school and into adulthood.

"The brain is the only organ that is not fully formed at birth. During the first three years, trillions of connections between brain cells are being made," says early childhood organisation Zero to Three.

As our knowledge about the value of the early years has grown, the sector has become professionalised, with minimum qualification standards across the board.

Yet still, pay and conditions lag. The passionate young educator who enters the profession through choice often leaves it a few years later, disillusioned.

I've interviewed educators who say the pay and conditions are so dismal they risk joining the ranks of the working poor, particularly if they are sole parents.

Who can afford housing in an Australian city on $40,000 a year, they ask. Who indeed?

The United Voice union are taking this dispute to the Fair Work Commission, pushing for pay rises of between 39 per cent and 72 per cent.

That might sound high, but they're starting from a low base.

I'd like to see the doubters spend a week looking after 25 little kids, it might elucidate a few things.

Let them sing nursery rhymes to an exuberant bunch of toddlers while answering a million "why" questions and adjusting the lesson to a range of abilities.

Perhaps they could create a curriculum based on the interests of three-year-olds (Spiders! Robots!) in their lunchbreak while supervising the lunchtime nap and liaising with a family in crisis. It's *work*.

The growth of quality early education is one of the many factors that have enabled women to pursue paid work outside the home in greater numbers.

And in this era of two-salary mortgages, men's careers also depend heavily on childcare.

We've all got a stake in this.

-reprinted from The Age

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Entered Date: 
5 Sep 2017
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