Government clarifies position on wages for early childhood educators

Big Steps Day crowd in Garema Place, Canberra

Now that submissions to the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Child Care and Early Learning have closed, attention has turned to another big event in early childhood education and care in 2014.

Fair Work Australia will be making a ruling on the wages of educators around the middle of the year. One of the things that will decide the final ruling will be whether the wages of educators are chronically low due to the feminisation of the sector – essentially they are lowly paid as the role has been viewed primarily as women’s work, traditionally done for free.

The previous ALP Government referred the case to Fair Work Australia as part of its response to the Big Steps campaign. They also committed funds to a Pay Equity Unit within FWA to assist with the application.

Throughout last year, and the 2013 election, the Coalition supported the referral of the wages issue to Fair Work Australia. Sussan Ley, the Assistant Minister for Education, said in December “Let’s let the Fair Work Commission do its work and come up with a sustainable increase for everybody.”.

At the time, this was a simple political deflection to avoid being perceived as attacking educators.

Now that the FWA decision is in the not-too-distant future, it appears that the Government may be changing its approach somewhat.

The Australian has reported on a Federal Government submission to FWA, where they have warned that granting wage increases to the sector could have negative flow-on effects to other industries.

From The Australian:

In a submission to the commission lodged late yesterday, the government said the tribunal’s task was to redress any gender-based differences in pay, not “undertake an exercise in comparative wage justice”.

The Government seems to be trying to make the point that FWA is not empowered to compare wages between different sectors or industries, but only to resolve specific gender issues within a specific sector.

This is deliberate attempt to refocus the case in a direction far more likely to lead to a negative verdict.

The evidence is clear and irrefutable that early childhood educators are underpaid primarily due to the feminisation of the sector. On current figures, only 3% of the sector is male.

FWA’s decision that wages were unfairly low for reasons of gender in the social and community sector case was in the context of a sector that employs around 15-20% of men.

On the strength of that alone, the case seems relatively open and shut.

What the Government appears to be trying to do is direct FWA to not compare between the ECEC sector and more diversely-represented sectors (or even male-dominated sectors), as there can only be one conclusion drawn from those comparisons.

Sections of the sector have reacted negatively to the Government’s position. Kate Ellis, the Shadow Minister for Early Childhood, Child Care and Youth, said that “The Abbott Government said to educators time and time again, if you want a pay rise, take it to the Fair Work Commission. But educators never expected their own government would speak out against them getting the wage they deserve. This is nothing but a cruel deception and a tricky political game and the cost is borne on low paid workers.”

It is important to remember, however, that FWA is an entirely independent body and is not directed by the Government.

The Government undoubtedly would prefer that in the current political climate of a “budget emergency”, they are not left footing the bill for a wage increase that could be anywhere up to $2 billion.

The Government are trying to encourage FWA to shift the goalposts into a position more favourable to them – but that is no guarantee that it will happen.

A clear case can be made that a culture of undervaluing the work of women in our society has had the long-term impact of keeping the wages of professional educators and teachers in the ECEC sector artificially low.

All that remains is for that case to be forcefully made, and for FWA to hand down its decision.

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