Late last week, hundreds of childcare centers across Australia shut their doors in order for their workers, historically underpaid and widely under-appreciated, to walk off the job as part of a national strike for higher wages.
The sector-wide strike, just one aspect of a longstanding campaign for fair pay, was spurred by Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s failure to meet a February 1st deadline for fulfilling their demand for better wages. Australian childcare workers earn an average wage of $21.29 per hour. The union representing them, United Voice, had called for a 35 percent pay raise.
United Voice reported that 320 centers were closed by the strike, affecting 30,000 families. “This has enormous support,” assistant national secretary Helen Gibbons told ABC News. “From Darwin to Tasmania, from the east coast to the west coast, we are going to see early educators walking out of their centers and joining various rallies and actions across the country, and they’ll be joined by parent groups and the wider community.”
In what became a five-year equal pay case with the Fair Work Commission, United Voice was asked to prove that early childcare work is undervalued and underpaid as a direct consequence of being a female-dominated field. The case was ultimately dismissed by the Fair Work Commission, which claimed that the unions had not presented “any evidence whatsoever” to make their case. But numbers, history and childcare workers themselves would say otherwise.
The Australian childcare sector is 97 percent female, and its workers make only marginally above half the national average wage. Early childhood educators are among the lowest wage earners in Australia, despite their training and well-earned competence in their field.
The wages assigned to the field of childcare represent, in large part, a systematic devaluation of care work—a sector often inhabited, and always assigned, to women. Nancy Fraser, a professor of philosophy and politics at The New School, told the New York Times in a 2015 interview that there exists an “institutionalized separation of two supposedly distinct kinds of activity: so-called productive labor, historically associated with men and remunerated by wages and on the other hand, ‘caring’ activities, often historically unpaid and still performed mainly by women.”
The result of this has been a historically chronic undervaluation of care work—and women. Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm just last year voiced his own dismissal for the challenges of childcare workers, asserting that their labor consisted primarily of “wiping noses and stopping the kids from killing each other.” In a Facebook post, he expressed condescending surprise that those employed in childcare centers needed certain credentials to do their jobs.
“I started out doing casual childcare work and [my job] just grew from there,” Sandra Bell, co-founder of the Randwick Occasional Care for Kids, told The Guardian. “At the moment, we have eight babies in a room with two staff and it’s draining physically and emotionally. Our wages are ridiculous. We educate these children, we’re not babysitting. I’ve been working at this centre for 38 years and have been a single mum for 30. I have a mortgage and no hope of retiring. I have to keep working as long as I can, until my health tells me otherwise.”
The World Economic Forum, in a study led by Nobel Laureate in economics Jim Heckman, found that children’s interactions with adults in early education, when strong, are singularly crucial for building the foundational skills necessary for future socio-economic, as well as socio-emotional, success. A 2017 report from the The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that children from disadvantaged or marginalized backgrounds find the largest benefits from exceptional early education, like that offered from highly-trained childcare workers.
As childcare workers in Australia come together to demand better pay, it seems the right time for lawmakers to remember that education is the great equalizer—and women’s equality can’t come soon enough.
Natasha Piñon is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a junior at the University of Southern California, where she studies political science and journalism. She also writes for The Daily Trojan.