The Opposition has had a motion to refer ACT public teachers’ pay and working conditions to the Fair Work Ombudsman shot down by the government.
Minister for Education Yvette Berry told the Assembly on Wednesday (1 December) that there was no “systemic underpayment of teachers in the ACT’s public system”. She accused the Opposition of deliberately misrepresenting the results of a recent teachers’ survey.
Opposition spokesperson for education Jeremy Hanson said teachers’ unpaid overtime was akin to “possible wage theft”.
He referenced an ACT Australian Education Union (ACT AEU) survey which revealed 97 per cent of respondents said they work more than their maximum weekly hours, including weekends, evenings, periods of leave or stand down.
A total of 79 per cent said they worked excessive hours every week, while one in three teachers said they considered leaving their jobs in the first three years because of the pressure.
The survey also revealed teachers regularly supply classroom materials and resources from their own pockets.
Mr Hanson said this was “shocking” and told the Assembly it could constitute a case of worker exploitation. He believed the Ombudsman was the right place to judge the situation and provide an impartial investigation.
Mr Hanson largely blames the issues facing the education system on a lack of funding leading to a teacher shortage. He said the impacts of a stressed, over-worked teaching system will affect children’s education.
AEU ACT Senior Industrial Officer Patrick Judge said regardless of the outcome of the debate, he was pleased to see all three political parties acknowledging the seriousness of the teacher shortage problem.
“What we’re sure of is that teachers are being expected to put in hours of additional unpaid work every week during term time and in school term breaks,” Mr Judge said.
“Jeremy Hanson is right that this is overwhelmingly caused by the teacher shortage.”
However, Ms Berry argued the Opposition was simply seeking to score a cheap political point, given the ACT Government had already established a task force in August to tackle teacher shortages in response to the publication of the ACT AEU’s report earlier this year.
The task force is comprised of representatives of the Education Directorate and AEU.
The AEU’s survey showed 91 per cent of public school teachers who responded to the survey believe shortages negatively impacted their school.
Ms Berry refuted Mr Hanson’s premise for his motion, saying there is no systemic underpayment of teachers in the ACT’s public system, given the ACT’s public teachers have the “highest pay conditions” in the country.
Mr Judge said this may be the case at the moment, but that teacher pay along the east coast is broadly similar.
Ms Berry argued an unsustainable workload was a different matter to underpayment or wage theft, but said real engagement with the union was underway to make changes.
“Teachers always go above and beyond for their students and that’s why it’s important that we listen to them and keep their workload sustainable,” Ms Berry said.
Mr Hanson said he understood teachers are hard-working but said the current situation had “crossed a line”.
“What’s being imposed on teachers now is unfair and unreasonable,” he said.
“Teachers are being asked to do too much.”
Ms Berry’s amendment to the motion called on the ACT Government to continue engaging with the union throughout the next enterprise bargaining agreement.
Mr Judge said this was of utmost importance to him and his members.
“What the teaching workforce needs are improvements to their pay and a reduction in their workloads that will attract more teachers to join or return the profession.”
ACT Greens spokesperson for education Johnathan Davis said it was time to give the union “whatever it wanted after the year [teachers] have had”. He told the government to “sell something, tax someone, find the money” to do so.
In his speech, Mr Davis later acknowledged that there may be more to it than simply “paying them more money” and that a wider range of issues affects the public education system than pay conditions.