The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the exploitation of non-formal early childhood educators
A day after Anis Baswedan, the governor of Jakarta, announced the ‘work from home’ measure on 20 March 2020, my husband and I received a message from our daughter’s daycare, saying that the centre would be closed following the governor’s directive.
Due to the closure, parents would not have to pay school fees, which was understandable as some parents were affected financially by this crisis. To be honest, it took me several days to think about the consequences of the closures: What about the teachers? Without school fees, daycare centres would not have enough financial resources to pay their salaries. I did not think they would have other jobs to support them. I knew some of them were single parents or had to take care of ageing parents. After some messages, the daycare manager finally admitted that she had laid off most of the carers and teachers. That was it.
While many people were worried about how the COVID-19 crisis was affecting the economy of more typical informal workers, such as garbage pickers, ojek drivers, construction workers and shop attendants, not much thought was given to the fate of early childhood workers. Not many know that in the absence of school fees, preschools and nurseries in Jakarta and other major cities are struggling to pay teachers’ salaries and other recurrent costs. Some of them have announced permanent closures. For others, the problem was more how to engage young minds without adding a significant burden to already distressed parents. As early childhood education (ECE), known as (pendidikan anak usia dini), caters for the learning needs of young children, much is carried out through physical interaction and caring engagement – neither of which is easily transferred into distant learning through a digital platform.
Vulnerability of workers
Although no official figures have been issued at the time of writing, ECE in Indonesia has been severely affected by the pandemic. The vulnerability of ECE was immediately identified by the Integrated Holistic National PAUD Coalition (Koalisi Nasional PAUD Holistik Integratif), with which I am involved. The coalition is an informal network of practitioners, academics, philanthropists and development professionals working on ECE issues. Our response was to launch a simple survey, which was sent to the ECE network of teachers and managers in Indonesia.
The study was carried out on 4 and 10 April. We received responses confirming our concerns from 42,357 educators, 97 per cent of whom were women, working in 459 cities and districts across all 34 provinces.
The survey found that 92 per cent or 37,242 teachers were still employed as at the first week of April, while 5769 had lost their jobs due to their early learning centres having closed during the crisis. This figure could well be much higher by now given that more centres have been unable to sustain their operations due to their not being able to charge students full fees given the ongoing pandemic. School fees are particularly important for some ECE centres in Indonesia.
What was more staggering from the survey was that, although the number of educators still working was still high in early April, 35 per cent of all respondents, or 14,071 teachers, said that they were not being paid, while 12.8 per cent or 5123 reported significant cuts to their salaries. Problems with earnings were particularly apparent among educators who worked at playgroups (46 per cent) and community-based centres (known as satuan PAUD sejenis or SPS, 26 per cent). Both categories belong to the non-formal form of ECE. This highlights the existence of systemic discrimination of non-formal ECE educators in Indonesia's national education system that has resulted from the way the program has expanded.
Systemic vulnerability in the wake of expansion
The vulnerability of non-formal ECE workers during the pandemic is symptomatic of their systemic legal and socio-cultural disadvantages. Working for non-formal ECE services means educators receive less legal recognition. The 2003 National Education Law divided ECE services into three groups: formal (kindergarten); non-formal (playgroups, nurseries, community-based integrated centres); and informal (family and community). Based on Article 1 of the 2005 Teachers and Lecturers Law, the full title of guru (teacher) at the preschool level can only be applied to teachers who work for kindergartens. Consequently, non-formal educators (generally, those working in playgroups, community-based centres, and nurseries), regardless of their qualification, are not entitled to professional teacher status and thus cannot access certification programs, remuneration or other protections. Nevertheless, despite these vulnerabilities created by the system, the government with the support of donors has campaigned intensively for the expansion of the non-formal ECE sector through PAUD-isasi (ECE-isation) – asking communities to open new centres in order to reach families from rural areas.
ECE expansion in Indonesia was mainly pursued to meet goals set by the Dakar Framework for Action Education for All (EFA) launched in 2000. Apart from encouraging member countries to double early learning access by 2015, EFA also required the incorporation of ‘care’ into the early learning process. To embrace both, Indonesia's strategy was to utilise some existing facilities, such as Posyandu (community integrated health posts) and Bina Keluarga Balita (parenting education for families with children under five). The use of the two organisations required the mobilisation of their kader (female volunteers) and extension of their services to include early learning, thus transforming them into ECE centres, whether in the sub-category of playgroups or community-based ECEs.
Despite the challenges relating to quality and the unclear status of participants, the strategy was praised by donors as being ‘cost-effective’. The use of volunteers was seen to be a ‘safe’ option as it would not destabilise the national government's budget by incuring a significant increased fiscal burden. However, from a socio-cultural point of view, this mechanism perpetuated the practice of women volunteerism. By accepting educator positions, kader shifted to a new position – that of being unpaid teachers. This transformation reflects the long-standing ‘motherism’ (or ‘ibuism’) that has played such a significant role in Indonesia’s development. To be ‘good’, women must and should commit their caring labour to their communities without necessarily asking for anything in return. In the case of ECE, the strategy is a nationalist one and employs the image of ‘innocent’ children, thereby strengthening the mother-child relationship both psychologically and socio-culturally.
The triad of education altruism, motherism and community volunteerism has become a magnet attracting women to take up new roles as ECE educators despite their lack of recognition, protection or financial benefit. Many non-formal ECE teachers receive only A$40 per month as incentives in the form of transportation or training allowance, too small to constitute a salary. The vulnerability of ECE workers during the pandemic is gendered. Women working in ECE have been seen as ‘natural’ instead of ‘professional’. They could thus be deployed when the authorities needed their labour, but when the crisis struck their dismissal was considered normal, and life goes on. Given the sector is dominated by women, the termination of ECE services has set back the struggle for recognition and better conditions for female educators and care workers.
At the time of writing, from the total of 233,578 centres registered on the Ministry of Education and Culture’s database, 47 per cent are non-formal centres. The list excludes many more that, for many reasons, have been functioning without any operational license from the government. One can expect that the longer that ‘work from home’ is imposed, the more ECE workers there will be getting let go as more centres shut down. At the time of writing, the ministry has issued Ministerial Decree No.20/2020 that allows centres to use government ECE operational funds to support the financial survival of teachers. Yet, like many other government funding schemes, such funds have to undergo a lengthy bureaucratic journey before they can benefit teachers. More awareness of this is desperately needed. Besides providing financial support, the government also needs to ensure that after the crisis ends, teachers can return to employment at the centres.
In the long run, without improving protection and recognition, Indonesia could lose a significant number of centres and trained workers that can help parents with childcare. Early childhood education is not supposed to be built as a house of cards, where workers and the centres can be easily constructed, and also let go.
Yulida Pangastuti is a mother and researcher who works on early childhood education issues in Indonesia. She is a supporting member of Koalisi Nasional PAUD Holistik Integratif, and director of Tulodo Indonesia.