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03 Aug 2023
Michelle Neuman & Tomi Oyedele

How Can Early Childhood Educators Improve Their Working Conditions?

In this blogpost, Michelle Neuman and Tomi Oyedele discuss the global challenge of recruiting and retaining qualified early childhood workers. They look at the reasons why early childhood education workers around the world are turning to collective action and explore the potential of unionization to improve their working conditions.


Last September, early childhood workers across Australia held nationwide strikes to demand better pay and working conditions. The rallies, which took place in every capital city, resulted in the closure of hundreds of childcare centers, impacting over 70,000 families. The union representing the workers called on the federal government to urgently address three key priorities: to pay childcare workers better, to value the sector as part of the education system, and to prioritize children over profit.

A few months later, more than 30,000 anganwadi workers – community-based frontline early childhood workers – in Karnataka State in India went on strike. The state government ultimately agreed to many of their demands related to compensation and health check-ups for workers, as well as infrastructure improvements and learning materials.

In Kenya, over 10,000 early childhood teachers and caregivers protested against a directive by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission in February, claiming it would reduce the earnings of early childhood educators to below the minimum wage.

Similar protests have occurred in recent months in Canada, where pre-primary educators and support staff in the Halifax area went on strike to demand increased wages, and in Ireland, where childcare workers protested being overlooked for funding despite high inflation. In the US, hundreds of child care and early learning providers in over 20 states shut down for the ‘Day Without Child Care’ to demand better pay and working conditions for child care providers. Meanwhile, in France earlier this summer, creches workers took to the streets to demonstrate for better child-staff ratios, professional development opportunities, and salaries.

Why are these workers around the world turning to collective action? What is the role of trade unions in improving pay, status, and working conditions of early childhood educators? What are some of the challenges in organizing workers in this field? These are some of the questions driving our interest in this issue. We are particularly concerned about the situation in low- and middle-income countries, where enrolments in early childhood education lag far behind global goals and the needs of the early childhood workforce are particularly neglected.


Poor working conditions make it difficult to recruit and retain early childhood educators

A focus on the workforce is essential for achieving greater access to quality early childhood education. Despite significant growth in pre-primary enrollments in recent years, almost half of children around the world do not have access to early learning opportunities. Even before the pandemic, UNICEF estimated that low- and lower-middle-income countries would need to recruit 8 million more early childhood educators – four times as many as those currently working – to reach universal pre-primary education by 2030. Making early childhood education an attractive and viable career option will require investment from governments and other stakeholders to address working conditions and elevate the status of the profession.

The challenge of recruiting and retaining qualified early childhood workers is pervasive globally, yet not surprising given that early childhood educators typically receive less preparation, lower pay, and less ongoing support than primary and secondary school teachers. The situation is particularly acute in low-resource contexts where high levels of staff turnover and burnout are common due to poor working conditions; many community-based early childhood programs are staffed by volunteers. Given the importance of stable, nurturing relationships to children’s early development and learning, teacher well-being and turnover issues demand urgent attention.

The COVID-19 pandemic provoked a global care crisis and highlighted the importance of quality, reliable early childhood services for supporting both young children’s development and the needs of working parents. In Australia, for example, early childhood educators have expressed that the industry is in crisis; many workers have left the profession due to low pay and working conditions. Two-thirds of early childhood centers surveyed have capped enrolments of children due to staff shortages, essentially turning families away from needed care and education.

In the US, too, the pandemic pushed the sector toward the brink. Notably, the crisis has deep roots in a fragile, underfunded system which relies on the low wages of workers – predominantly women of color – and high parent fees. The child care workforce has been one of the slowest employment sectors to recover after experiencing sharp job losses early on in the pandemic. Many providers are struggling to adequately staff programs as early childhood educators leave to work at higher paid and less stressful jobs in retail or restaurants. Parents have reported that child care issues are leading them to reduce their hours, quit their job, or make another job change.


Can unions make a difference?

One potential pathway for early childhood educators to achieve greater professional recognition is to form or join a trade union that can engage in social dialogue and collective bargaining with employers. Although unionization rates vary across countries, they tend to be lower among educators working with young children and lower still among those employed outside formal preschools. In most of Europe, early childhood teachers working within the education system are represented by teachers unions. However, only about 5 percent of the child care workforce in the US belongs to a union, whereas 45 percent of elementary and middle school teachers are unionized.

In some countries, the pandemic seems to have pushed a movement toward greater unionization and collective action on behalf of the early childhood workforce. In the US, in-home child care providers in California won a 16-year battle with the state for the right to unionize in 2021. Last month, Child Care United, which represents 40,000 providers receiving government subsidies, negotiated an historically large pay increase for its members. Prior to the pandemic, early childhood workers in several European countries including Germany and Ireland improved their pay and working conditions through unionization, strikes, and other forms of collective action.

The impact of these efforts differs across contexts. A regional study of 16 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean found unions and professional associations in Argentina, Brazil and Peru to be influential in terms of negotiating salaries and disseminating innovative pedagogical methods. In contrast, those in Chile, Colombia, and Trinidad and Tobago were deemed relatively less powerful. Through persistent activism, the union in New Zealand has made slow progress toward pay parity between early childhood and primary teachers within a largely privatized sector. These examples suggest that the drivers of success need to be further unpacked.

Key takeaways

Four takeaways emerge from our initial scan of the literature:

  1. Unions have the potential to give voice to low status female workers in early childhood settings. Like other feminized professions, work with young children is commonly undervalued. Organized labor can elevate the voices of the marginalized and address gender inequities in working conditions. For thirty years, the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers and its state-level affiliates have empowered thousands of women workers, many of whom come from the disadvantaged communities they serve, to fight for better pay and working conditions. Those who work directly with children and families are also best equipped to articulate workforce needs, challenges, and solutions.
  2. Currently, early childhood workers are unlikely to benefit from workers’ rights movements, especially in LMICs. Early childhood educators in many low-resource contexts do not belong to trade unions (though information is lacking overall) as providers commonly operate as small, private businesses. Others work in the informal sector or the informal component of the formal economy. For these reasons, early childhood workers are more difficult to organize and are less likely to engage in social dialogue and collective bargaining than teachers in the formal education system. In addition, some teachers’ unions do not include early childhood educators in their by-laws or constitutions.
  3. Teachers’ unions may not prioritize issues concerning early childhood educators. It is important for unions to take into account the specific needs of early childhood educators. While some teachers unions have elevated early learning issues (e.g., Sri Lanka), it is common for the concerns of other levels of education to dominate. In Kenya, early childhood educators created their own union in 2014, Kenya Union of Pre-Primary Education Teachers (KUNOPPET), stating that the Kenya National Union of Teachers had failed to adequately address long-standing problems raised by pre-primary education teachers. Since its inception, KUNOPPET has advocated for early childhood-related issues, including better wages, better management, greater access to learning materials, and hiring pre-primary teachers on a permanent and pensionable basis to replace the current contract model.
  4. The scope of unions representing early childhood educators is broad. While advocating for better pay and benefits is common, unions also focus on improving quality through professional development, pedagogy, and child-staff ratios. Early childhood unions have resisted privatization and marketization trends in many countries. The Danish Union of Early Childhood and Youth Educators (BUPL) takes an explicit “two-leg strategy” which combines a traditional union focus on salaries and working conditions with an emphasis on pedagogical issues. Since the 1990s, BUPL has partnered with the Ghana National Association of Teachers to organize early childhood workers and promote greater recognition of work with young children. Education International, which represents more than 32 million education personnel globally, supports these cross-country partnerships across affiliate unions.

Heightened public awareness of the critical role of early childhood workers – and the disconnect with their current working conditions – makes this an opportune time to learn more about the potential of unionization and other forms of collective action. We plan to explore this topic in more depth through a comparative case study analysis with a focus on selected LMICs.


About the authors

Michelle Neuman is an impact fellow with the Federation of American Scientists and a senior fellow at Results for Development. She has taught and advised students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education since 2012. Through her engagement with the global, multi-sectoral Early Childhood Workforce Initiative, she has focused on strategies to support the development of a quality early childhood workforce at scale.

Tomi Oyedele studies International Educational Development and Learning Sciences and Technologies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. She is particularly interested in early childhood development, education technology, and designing learning programs that empower students to create meaningful social change.

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