Paying it rough as a childcare worker.

It’s said that one of the best things about other people’s kids is you can give them back when things turn sour. But not for Heather, she has to grin and bear the nappies, the screaming and the terrible two’s. Why? Because she is a childcare worker.

 

Heather is the type of person, upon first meeting, you know you can’t get away with anything. No matter who you are and regardless if someone has the toy you want, nothing seems to faze her. When it comes to her kids that is. But working in an industry that demands so much, is highly regulated and pays very little, Heather who has been a childcare worker for nearly a decade sometimes second guesses herself.

 

“it’s not worth the money. It’s not. I’ve had days where I’ve gone, I could go and work for a supermarket and make more money.”

 

But why do you stay? Why does anyone stay?

 

“You don’t stay in the industry for the money. Many stay because they love the children.”

 

In an industry that is predominantly female, its little wonder many here battle the wages war. When speaking to the Guardian about the issue regarding pay in the industry, United Voice’s national secretary, Jo-anne Schofield called it a “national disgrace”.

 

“Educators are among the lowest paid professionals in Australia for one simple reason. This workforce is 95% female and their profession is shamefully underpaid,” Schofield said.

 

It has a ripple effect, low wages that is. When speaking on Lateline earlier this month co-convenor of the Work and Family Policy Roundtable Elizabeth Hill said no matter how much an individual may enjoy working with children the struggle is helping workers make a career out of the industry.

 

“Centres are finding it really difficult not being able to support individual workers who are fabulous at their job in a career path. So the churn factor that low wages has is a really significant issue in the industry,” Hill said.

 

Even after a bachelor degree your still only looking at taking home a thousand dollars a fortnight. Even after finishing a diploma and receiving any and all qualifications you’ll be lucky to peak above two thousand. The industry definitely is not for the faint hearted and money driven millennials.

 

“Most places can’t put you on as an unqualified trainee anymore because you can’t work unqualified. And they won’t put you onto a traineeship until you’ve been working for them for three months,” Heather explains.

Even trying to get a traineeship is still hard as most centres look for those already qualified. Their reasoning, National Quality Framework.

 

Established in 2012, the aim of the National Quality Framework was to implement a standard across the country when it comes to caring and educating young children. Through the use of what are deemed seven key areas, centres and families can understand and make affect decisions surrounding childcare.

 

One aspect of the framework that was remodelled was ratios, that being the number of workers to children. In Victoria, and much of the country, the ratio for newborns to 24 months is one to four. Then, according to the website, it jumps to 36 months to pre-school age, with the ratio one to eleven. When looking at the numbers it doesn’t seem all that bad but when putting it into reality Heather explains it’s a lot harder than it looks. And she doesn’t mince words.

 

“I think the ratios crap,” she says.

 

“The ratio for a baby should be different to a two to three-year-old.”

 

Why?

 

“When you’re trying to feed four babies at once because they’re all hungry and you’re by yourself because technically that’s ratio, its physically impossible. Trust me I’ve tried. You literally have to give a five-month old baby their bottle and hope they learn to hold it themselves.”

 

When you put this into context with a remark Schofield said to the Guardian that educators “literally shape the future, one child at a time” the pressure to do the best you can, seems all the more important. But this isn’t the opinion of many.

 

“Some teachers who’ve never worked in a day care think we’re babysitters.” She has a look of contempt in her eyes.

 

Looking back, you can’t really see or remember what it is you learned while in childcare, if you can that is. Apart from the achievement of being able to colour between the lines it’s difficult to understand what it is that workers do, or teach, to young children.

 

“They’re learning how to negotiate, they’re learning how to share, they’re learning how to be friends. They’re learning how to interact with one another,” explains Heather.

 

When speaking on the issue to the Guardian, Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman once said, “Like it or not, the most important mental and behavioural patterns, once established, are difficult to change once children enter school.” A comment Heather agrees with strongly but has found it harder to accomplish because parents aren’t always on the same page.

 

It’s another pressure on top of low wages and strict regulations, the ability to help children develop the fundamental emotional and social aspects of their lives.

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We are talking in the only quiet room at her parent’s house. With all the red tape and notifications to parents it was easier this way than at the centre she works for. Even with advanced notice it still would have taken weeks for approval to be made. Outside the closed door you can hear her nieces and nephews running back and forth, screaming and carrying on. Blocks are pulled out and it keeps them entertained for a while longer until the fights start. It’s a slight distraction but it doesn’t seem to faze her, she keeps on talking.

 

“There’s an odd generation with how parents are parenting. So more children now just get whatever they want, whenever they want. Get to rule the roost, essentially. Rather than being parented.”

 

Retired physician and contributing editor to the City Journal Theodore Dalrymple who asked the question in an article printed in the publication as to why some parents find it hard to say no. Especially when it comes to their screaming two-year-old.

 

“There is also the belief that to say no is to be cruel, heartless and unloving, while to say yes is kind, caring and affectionate. The evidence for this proposition is obvious: If you say no to an infant, he cries and screams with distress. If you say yes, he smiles and laughs with pleasure.”

 

Heather has seen this all too often and explains many occasions where, after telling a parent their child hit another in the face, the parent proceeds to defend their little one.

 

Your child hit another child today.

What did you do?

Took the toy off them.

Alright. Why did you take the toy off my child?

Well, because they hit them to try and get it.

Well they clearly wanted it so you should have just let them have it in the first place.

Well no that’s not how it works.

 

It’s hard to imagine, looking from the outside in, the extent one goes through on a daily basis in the industry. From low wages, strict regulations that have you asking questions, and parents that believe the whole world does, and should, evolve around their little ray of sunshine. This is of course generally speaking, though when compared to when she started Heather does say there has been a huge change.

 

Her comments, “We are the most over regulated and under paid industry. Full stop. Full stop.”

 

So why, why would anyone want to work in this industry.

 

“You don’t stay in the industry for the money. Many stay because they love the children.”

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It’s purely about greed and maximum return

Her kitchen is bright and spacious with streams of light bouncing off the granite counter top. Shadows are seen playing across the polished wooden floors. There is a click and she pours the jug of water. Snake like wisps of stem float up and disappear. She cradles her cup in her hands but doesn’t take a sip.

Bridget sits herself down on one of the neighbouring stools. At a glance you can see how the years have worn at her face, yet her pale blue eyes show how she has lived each day and the wisdom it has bought. She points to what she calls the ugly tree. It’s bare and looks gaunt against the vibrant red wall of her neighbour’s house. Various ornaments hang from its branches. Her neighbour hacks at it because the leaves blow in the wrong direction. It’s nearly dead.

“They’ve taken away every bit of garden. And yet this ugly tree that’s nearly dead the counsel said no you can’t remove it because the place would be devoid of trees.”

As the popularity of subdivision increases and the demand for land becomes a race for the highest bid, many voices like Bridget are being drowned out by big bucks and instant cash flow.

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“This kind of development is short sighted,” she says, “they want to be they want to be in prime real estate so they can buy a well-positioned place in a good suburb and build rubbish.”

“In 20 years’ time the next generation of people moving into the street will just bulldoze everything because nothing has been built with any kind of consideration for the future. It’s just about making money right now.”

Bridget has been living in Surry Hills for over 25 years. But as time has progressed she has seen the popularity of her area and those around her fall to property developers who scramble for any available plot of land and then try to squeeze a two story apartment which seems to kiss the fence on all three sides.

“It’s purely about greed and maximum return,” she says.

She describes how many of the developers and properties going up within meters of her house are inconsiderate of their neighbours and community around them.

“Every time we are in the back garden we have people looking in and that’s an invasion of privacy,” She explains.

“They just stand out and destroy what’s all about them. That’s what I object too.”

But developers aren’t the only ones cashing in on these short sighted projects.

“They [the council] just re-zoned this to high density living,” She exclaims, “Which pretty much means that developers can come and do what they like and build three stories’ high and a bit further down they can build seven stories’ high.”

“They’re terrible, they’re cheap, they’re nasty, they’re not well planned and they’re tiny,” she says, “not one of those units I would put even my own child in.”

 

She Paints a Black Canvas

With each question she stumbles. There is always the momentary pause before a response. She is quietly spoken so you have to be attentive otherwise you’ll miss what she says. Silence. She is trying to wrap her tongue around her emotions. It’s hard to put feelings into words.

 

She starts in year 11, second last year of High School. The critical moments of life. She had hit the ground running but slipped and fell, never seeming to get back up.

 

Every lesson is a blur. Nothing stays in. She is losing control. She is falling apart.

 

These kinds of struggles don’t leave visible scars. They’re hidden and disguised in memories, images and even new moments waiting to catch you unaware. Sometimes the greatest people carry the biggest burdens.

 

“I had seen a social worker only a couple years before and they just said I was lonely.”

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Those years spent as young adults are said to be the defining moments of one’s life. You figure out who you are and what you want to be. It’s the time where the most of the pressure is put. If you don’t step up, you’ll fail. Fail school. Fail at life.

 

 

You’re supposed to start growing up. Get a job. Go to university. The normal things she says.

 

“Art was what kept me grounded.”

 

For years Alyce had been fighting a hidden battle. Deep within the realms of the mind and guarded by the scariest of feelings. People say it’s just a faze. All girls go through it. She’ll just grow out of it. But this has nothing on puberty. This is real. This is depression. This is anxiety.

 

“Over time it stripped me of the capacity to do any of the required classes that would allow me into university to study the course that I needed to.”

 

“I knew what was required and I wasn’t making the cut.”

 

“It was hard being left behind.”

 

She tells of mental health lessons. She would be sitting there, listening. Listening to words like depression and anxiety. Ticking all the boxes. It would be something to look into at some point but not now.

 

“Bit of a regret,” she laments.

 

“Spent the time learning the hard way.”

 

Looking at her now you would be amazed. Since 2011 she has been a dominant player in the Tasmanian art sphere. Three solo galleries. All sold out before the opening night.

 

“I remember sitting in the car getting all these phone calls from the gallery on the day they were hanging my first show, whenever a piece was sold.”

 

“I had put my whole soul onto those canvases and people were just snapping them up. I didn’t cope with it very well at all. I still don’t.”

 

She is gaining momentum now. Making up for lost time. The world is big and full of opportunities again. Reachable. Visible. Now that the fight has been won.

Working as an artist isn’t a stable career. It’s not easy. Not many people make it.

 

“Being an artist is one of the hardest jobs out there,” she says.

 

Her dad is an accountant. He asked the hard hitting questions. How can you financially support yourself? Your husband? Your family? He fought. Fought with the idea of his daughter dreaming away her future.

 

Her mother. Her mother understood. She knew art wasn’t some young adolescent dream of running away with the circus. This was an escape of another kind. An avenue to express the detailed workings of the mind. The pain. The hopelessness.

 

“Another artist once gave the advice that not every piece has to be a masterpiece, sometimes we get caught up in the pursuit of perfection, but really the important thing is to finish works, learn from the mistakes and to progress.”

 

Much can be paralleled to her experience with anxiety and depression. Always being told to be a certain way. Feel a certain feeling. Now she is learning from her mistakes. The mistake of keeping silent for so long.

 

“You get to the point where you have two options. You ask for help or…”

 

She doesn’t finish her sentence.

 

Mental health is a lot better than it was four years ago. People are being educated more. Non for profits like Beyond Blue and Helpline are widely known. The long prevailed taboo has disappeared but left behind is still a heavy stigma.

 

“People just don’t understand how serious it could get.”

 

Unless you have gone through it, it’s hard to understand. But awareness is better than silence. Mental illness is a hard thing, harder still to admit to it.

 

“For me asking for help was the hardest thing. For years of my life I’d tried to push through on my own.”

 

Everything looks different in hindsight. For one thing, Alyce is using her art as a way to help others understand their own feelings and emotions.

 

“For me are those quiet moments when you can see someone truly connect with a work on an emotional level. It reminds me that my job is a privilege.”

 

Being an artist doesn’t mean you’re careless with your time. The need for discipline is greater than most people would think. You don’t get out any more than you put in. She details the long hours of planning, pondering, sketching a piece before it even makes it to the canvas.

 

“I would normally be frantically working on 7 pieces at once for an upcoming solo show, but I have taken a year off to re-evaluate what I want to do and to explore new ideas and techniques.”

 

Life isn’t so daunting anymore. She shares her most pivotal moment. Her description?

 

“I was in a big hole getting sucked into it.”

 

Silence.